By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — The board that oversees city elections is considering new controls on Election Division employees who engage in local politics, following allegations that a division employee faked several signatures on nominating petitions last year.
The Board of Registrars last week began work on a policy that would prohibit Election Division employees who sign nominating petitions from then certifying that their own signatures are valid.
At the same time, the registrars are continuing to investigate allegations that Rafael Tejeda, the election official who allegedly verified his own signature on petitions nominating Frank Moran for a Statehouse seat, also faked the signatures of at least four other people on Moran’s petitions.
A forensic handwriting expert hired by The Eagle-Tribune last year concluded that Tejeda signed his name and the four others on Moran’s petitions, including the name of a woman who lives next door to Tejeda and is not a U.S. citizen. The newspaper hired the expert after Moran’s opponent for the 17th Essex House seat brought the alleged fakes to the paper’s attention.
The expert, Ronald Rice of Plymouth, concluded that Tejeda signed his own signature and the four others, then used his position as an election official to fill in boxes at the bottom of the petition sheets certifying that all five signatures were valid.
“The style, slant and flow of the five hand-printed signatures and addresses are the same,” Rice said, adding that the four signatures match the penmanship of Tejeda’s signature on Moran’s petitions and on his voting card on file at the Election Division.
A spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin initially said he would investigate the allegations, then said he would not because Tejeda denied faking the signatures when interviewed by The Eagle-Tribune. The spokesman, Brian McNiff, said the investigation went no further than reading the newspaper story.
On Oct. 12, eleven months after the newspaper published the allegations, the Board of Registrars began its own investigation with subpoenas to Tejeda and Rice.
Rice skipped the hearing because he said the board gave him only two days notice and did not respond to his request to pay him $4,866 in expenses and fees for his expert testimony.
Tejeda attended the hearing, when he again denied faking the four signatures on Moran’s petitions and added a new wrinkle when he said he did not sign even his own name, according to minutes of the meeting.
Instead, Tejeda said he believed one of the two women who carried the petitions signed his name when he told them he was too busy to sign himself.
“I was leaving when they arrived,” Tejeda said Friday about what he told the women when they approached him outside his Greenwood Street home. “Two ladies. I said, ‘Go inside. Tell my wife I have no problem (if his wife signs for him).’ “
Nevertheless, Tejeda told the registrars at the hearing that when Moran’s petitions were submitted to the city Election Division, where Tejeda is bilingual coordinator, he certified that the signature was his own.
When his testimony ended, the Board of Registrars voted 3-0 to direct City Clerk William Maloney — who serves ex officio on the board and also oversees the city Election Division — to draft a policy “that prohibits any employee of the Lawrence Election Division from reviewing and certifying their own signatures.”
Nancy Driscoll, a spokeswoman for Galvin, said state election law does not address whether local election officials can verify their own signatures on nominating petitions.
Maloney said Friday that the Board of Registrars is continuing its investigation into whether Tejeda faked the four signatures.
Minutes of the Oct. 12 board meeting show that Maloney advised the board that it has no authority to consider allegations of forgery on nominating petitions, but can refer allegations to the Secretary of State.
However, before Tejeda’s testimony at the hearing, Maloney also told the registrars they can review “the performance and conduct of city Election Division staff. . . and may consider and take action deemed necessary in regard to the claim relating to allegations that Mr. Tejeda may have authored signatures on nominating documents submitted on behalf of candidate Moran and proceeded to certify those signatures in 2012.”
Moran did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday.
Last year, Moran said allegations that Tejeda faked signatures on his petitions were “lies” spread by his opponent, Kevin Cuff, in the race to represent the 17th Essex Statehouse District. Moran easily won the seat and has continued serving as City Council president while representing Lawrence in Boston. He gives up his council seat Dec. 31.
Moran said about 20 volunteers carried his nominating petitions last year but could not say which of them carried the sheet with the contested signatures.
“I think Rafael (Tejeda) is a great person,” Moran said last year. “Good character. I don’t think he’d do something like that.”