By Hannah Fry and Marisa Gerber
A forged signature swapped for $1 -- or sometimes a cigarette.
The crude exchange played out hundreds of times on L.A.'s skid row during the 2016 election cycle and again this year, prosecutors said Tuesday as they announced criminal charges against nine people accused in a fraud scheme.
Using cash and cigarettes as lures, the defendants approached homeless people on skid row and asked them to forge signatures on state ballot measure petitions and voter registration forms, the district attorney's office said. The defendants -- some of whom were scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday -- face several criminal charges, including circulating a petition with fake names, voter fraud and registering a fictitious person.
The charges, which were filed three weeks ago but made public Tuesday, followed a Los Angeles Police Department crackdown on suspected election fraud on skid row earlier in the year.
"They paid individuals to sign the names," Officer Deon Joseph, the senior lead officer on skid row, told The Times in September. "That's an assault on our democracy."
State officials said petition signature scams aren't widespread in California, but Joseph said they do pop up from time to time on skid row. People hired to help qualify initiatives for the ballot are often paid per signature collected, typically $1 to $2, but officials said a recent slew of proposed ballot initiatives had pushed the rate as high as $6 a signature. It is illegal for the collectors, however, to pay people for signatures.
Los Angeles police Capt. Marc Reina said officials used undercover officers and security camera video before arresting Kirkland Kauzava Washington, 38, one of the nine individuals charged by prosecutors. Washington allegedly set up a card table outside the Midnight Mission, where homeless people line up for meals and shelter, Reina said.
Two other people arrested at the same time as Washington were either homeless or living in a single-room-occupancy apartment on skid row, but neither of them were among the nine defendants charged by L.A. County prosecutors.
"We didn't charge any homeless people," said district attorney spokeswoman Shiara Davila-Morales.
L.A. County elections chief Dean Logan previously said it was unlikely the forgeries eluded his staff, who manually compare petition signatures with those on registration forms. But, Logan said, he worried about "any activity that causes voters to lose faith in the process."
Washington, Harold Bennett, 53, and Louis Thomas Wise, 36, face up to six years and four months in prison. The others charged -- Richard Howard, 62, Rose Makeda Sweeney, 42, Christopher Joseph Williams, 59, Jakara Fati Mardis, 35, Norman Hall, 61, and Nickey Demelvin Huntley, 44 -- face up to four years and eight months in prison.
Times staff writer Gale Holland contributed to this report.
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