Alleging that petitions submitted to hold a referendum on the Tennessee State Fairgrounds are evidence of “illegal conduct,” an attorney representing a neighborhood group has requested the District Attorney’s Office launch a formal investigation into the matter.
Attorney George Barrett, on behalf of Neighbors for Progress — which supports Mayor Karl Dean’s desire to redevelop the 117-acre fairgrounds — sent a letter Monday to District Attorney Torry Johnson that highlights five versions of petitions the Davidson County Election Commission voted to disqualify.
“We contend ... that several of those petitions were not merely improper but evidence of illegal conduct,” Barrett’s letter reads, which goes on to point to several state statutes that Barrett contends were violated.
“In view of these serious allegations of breaches of the election laws, we are requesting that your office conduct a formal investigation into how the signatures were collected in support of the upcoming Aug. 4th referendum.”
District Attorney Office spokeswoman Susan Niland confirmed the office received the request and said an attorney is reviewing it.
When asked to comment, Metro Councilman Jamie Hollin, who organized the petition drive, alluded to a suit former Councilwoman Pam Murray filed against him and several of his constituents after a recall effort led to her ouster. He compared that litigation with Barrett’s request for a probe.
"I don't know what’s worse,” Hollin said. “Someone filing a complaint against ordinary citizens for losing an election or some opposition group substituting its judgment for that of the election commission to allege election fraud has been committed.”
Despite the invalid petitions Barrett references, the election commission last month verified 11,159 petitions, nearly twice the 6,742-petition threshold that Metro attorneys deemed were necessary to add a referendum to the Aug. 4 ballot. The referendum will give voters an opportunity to decide whether to amend Metro’s charter to keep auto-racing, a state fair and expo center at the fairgrounds permanently.
Before verifying petitions, the election commission threw out several formats. They included petitions dated one year before the referendum movement actually initiated and formats in which mention of the Aug. 4 referendum was clearly added after signatures were collected.
Barrett has alerted the District Attorney’s Office to several state election laws. Among them, a law states that anyone who “knowingly makes or consents to any false entry” on election documents commits a Class D felony. Another law assigns a Class C misdemeanor to those who purposely mislead another in election matters — through false statements, creating false impressions in written applications or relying on writing that is knowingly forged, altered or lacking in authenticity.
Rounding out his arguments, Barrett said the election commission didn’t allow observers to view or witness the verification of petitions.
Hollin called Barrett’s request “nothing more than a last-ditch effort by the governing to keep the governed from being heard on Aug. 4.
“If their position had any merit, they’d file a lawsuit in appropriate forum to keep it off the ballot,” he said. “Instead they choose to engage in insidious attacks. There’s a complete absence of any reasonable public policy or legal argument in defense of their meritless position.”