Arizona Senate candidate Mark Syms was knocked off the ballot Friday over accusations that his petitions contained more than 900 forged voter signatures.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Christopher Coury ruled there’s “clear and convincing evidence” that Syms doesn’t have enough valid signatures to remain on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Coury emphasized that county elections officials, who reviewed Syms’ nomination petitions, determined more than 1,176 signatures are invalid because the handwriting does not match that of voter records.
“The conclusion that signatures did not match voter records is corroborated by other evidence which strongly suggests that the signature collectors forged or somehow otherwise engaged in fraudulent practices while gathering signatures,” Coury wrote in the ruling released Friday evening.
That ruling came after a dramatic, three-hour courtroom showdown between attorneys representing Syms and the campaign of Kate Brophy McGee, a political opponent whose husband filed the lawsuit against Syms.
Syms is an independent running for Senate in Legislative District 28, a swing district that encompasses parts of north-central Phoenix, Arcadia, Biltmore and Paradise Valley.
The controversy came to light two weeks ago when The Arizona Republic reported that dozens of voters said their names were forged on petitions for Syms without their consent or knowledge.
Syms, a prominent doctor, previously said in a statement to The Republic that he is the “victim of fraud” on the part of a signature-collecting firm he hired to gather his petitions. His campaign said he hired a signature-collection company owned by a man named Larry Herrera.
Herrera, a school board member in the Washington Elementary School District in north Phoenix and Glendale, hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment.
Syms’ defense in court
But Syms seemed to back away from his statement during Friday’s trial. He said he made the statement about fraud based on The Republic‘s reporting, and that he hadn’t independently verified those concerns.
Much of Syms’ defense focused on arguing that the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office used a flawed verification process to check signatures.
Syms’ attorney, Jeremy Phillips, urged the judge to “err on the side of democracy” and allow Syms to remain on the ballot.
“The burden of proof to keep people off the ballot, your honor, is an immense power that this court wields,” Phillips said. “If you err on the side of blocking him from the ballot, you have disrupted a fundamental part of American democracy.”
Syms’ defense team called in several witnesses to demonstrate errors in the county’s signature verification process.
One man said he collected signatures for Syms from one of his closest friends and from his grandfather, aunt, and uncle. He said, under oath, he is certain they signed. However, the county had counted these signatures among the 1,176 signatures they classified as “signature does not match.”
But Coury said Syms’ attorneys didn’t prove “any further review would have made a material difference.” He said the testimony restored 10 signatures disputed as invalid.
That left Syms with far fewer signatures than needed. He submitted 2,158 signatures, and county elections officials determined 1,675 were invalid due to possible forgery and other concerns.
Syms needed a minimum of 1,250 valid signatures to remain on the ballot.
Judge: No evidence Syms knew about forgeries
However, Coury stated in his ruling that no evidence suggests Syms knew his signature gatherers (whom he said he paid $10 per signature) were engaged in a forgery scheme.
“The court would be inclined to find that (Syms’s) team of signature gatherers, and not defendant, were the ones engaged in the fraudulent practices,” Coury wrote.
Syms quoted that sentence in a statement Friday night, saying “despite Kate Brophy McGee’s and her allies attempt to smear my good name, the judge today spoke clear.”
He said he believes legitimate voters were disqualified in the county’s review and said he would appeal the ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court.
It’s unclear if the episode will trigger a criminal investigation by the county attorney or another law-enforcement agency. It’s a felony to knowingly forge a document for filing with a government agency.
Friday’s ruling was a victory for Brophy McGee, an incumbent Republican and Syms’ chief rival in the race. The race is one of the most contested on the ballot this year and could affect the balance of power in the Senate.
Ruling should settle GOP civil war, for now
Her campaign’s lawsuit called Syms’ petitions the “most extensive and pervasive petition fraud scheme in recent Arizona history.”
Kory Langhofer, an attorney for McGee’s husband who filed the suit, laid out several pieces of evidence, which the judge said strongly suggests a pattern of fraud:
•Syms’ forms contained 245 signatures gathered by a man purportedly named “Anthony Garcia.” However, a well-known petition circulator of the same name testified that he didn’t gather any of them. Langhofer alleges an impersonator forged Garcia’s name on the forms.
•Among the forged voter signature’s was that of Maria Brnovich, mother of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Both parties agreed her name had been forged.
•Some petition gatherers “listed remarkable numbers of signatures gathered — some in the ballpark of 200 signatures in a single day,” the ruling states.
Friday’s ruling comes amid a brutal intra-party civil war between Republicans in District 28.
Syms and his wife, Republican state Rep. Maria Syms, are at odds with two GOP candidates in the district: Brophy McGee and House candidate Kathy Petsas.
The conflict escalated last month when Petsas, a GOP activist, entered the primary. Maria Syms’ path to re-election likely would have been easier if she were the only Republican on the ballot for the House (legislative districts in Arizona election one senator and two representatives).
Mark Syms then jumped into the Senate race as an independent against Brophy McGee. Political insiders viewed the move as retaliation against Petsas and Brophy McGee, who are political allies.
High-profile Republicans have blasted Mark Syms’ candidacy. On Thursday, Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Lines called for Syms to exit the race.
“It is time for Mark Syms to end this sad and vindictive charade,” Lines said in a statement.