|Updated: 8/16/2012 8:05 pm
||Published: 8/16/2012 3:43 pm
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A prosecutor running for an east Arkansas congressional seat said Thursday that he asked authorities to look into possible fraudulent signatures for two ballot initiatives.
Scott Ellington, the Democratic candidate for the 1st District, hasn't taken a public stance on either of the proposals - a casino-legalization amendment and an increase in the state's severance tax on natural gas.
Ellington said he asked the Arkansas State Police to investigate potentially fraudulent signatures for the severance tax proposal. He said he also asked the sheriffs in Craighead and Crittenden counties to look into similar concerns about signatures for professional poker player Nancy Todd's casino proposal.
Ellington, who will face Republican incumbent Rick Crawford in the November election, said calling for the investigations was part of his job as prosecutor.
"I didn't go looking for people to call me and complain about this," he said. "This was brought to me as the prosecuting attorney."
Still, the politically popular move is the latest in a series of high-profile cases and causes Ellington has been involved with recently.
Last month, he won a death penalty case against Jerry Lard, who was convicted of killing Trumann police officer Jonathan Schmidt. Last year, before he announced plans to run for the congressional seat, he agreed to an unusual plea deal that freed three men known as the West Memphis Three. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. pleaded guilty to lesser charges in the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts and were allowed to maintain claims of innocence.
Ellington's latest move comes after election officials deemed thousands of signatures submitted for proposed ballot measures invalid. State lawmakers last month also said they would look at changes to the petition process for placing initiatives on the ballot.
On Thursday, critics and proponents of Todd's casino proposal were quick to praise Ellington's call for investigations.
"I wish all 75 counties would go after the people who turned in fraudulent stuff," said Todd, whose proposal would give her exclusive rights to casinos to in four counties, including Crittenden.
Chuck Lange, the chair of a group that challenged Todd's proposal, applauded Ellington's decision too.
"On behalf of Stop Casinos Now! committee members and the people of Arkansas, we want to thank Prosecutor Ellington for asking law enforcement to investigate 'suspicions of fraudulent signatures' collected by Nancy Todd," Lange said in a statement. Stop Casinos Now is funded by the Southland Park greyhound track in West Memphis, which has casino-style games.
Todd's ballot measure faced an obstacle Wednesday when Secretary of State Mark Martin bounced it over concerns about its wording. But Todd said she submitted a change in language Thursday and still intends to put the matter before voters.
She needs 78,133 signatures from registered voters to get the proposal on the November ballot. Martin's office has certified 23,616 signatures submitted by Todd as being from registered voters.
Sheffield Nelson, who proposed the severance tax increase, didn't return a phone message left Thursday evening. He said last month that he would suspend his signature-gathering effort but hadn't ruled out trying to gather the more than 40,000 additional signatures needed by next week.
Ellington said he received calls about the severance tax proposal alleging fraudulent signatures, many of which were purported to be signatures of residents of Mississippi County. Some of those residents whose signatures are reflected on the petition have signed sworn affidavits alleging they never signed a petition to get the issue on the ballot, Ellington said in a statement.
State police spokesman Bill Sadler said a case agent has been assigned to begin interviews and proceed with an investigation in Mississippi County.
Sheriffs in Craighead and Crittenden counties didn't return phone messages seeking comment about the investigations there.
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