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OGDEN — Two employees of a Utah-based signature-gathering company are facing criminal charges for allegedly forging signatures on voter initiative petitions.
Alexander James Burke, 22, was charged in 2nd District Court on Monday with five counts each of forgery, a third-degree felony, and violation of petition procedures, a class A misdemeanor.
Emma Riches, 21, who was charged Thursday, is facing eight counts of each charge.
Burke and Riches, both of Ogden, were circulating petitions for voter initiatives on the Utah Medical Cannabis Act and direct primary elections, according to charging documents.
The two were employed by Gather, a signature-gathering company that pays its employees per signature, and the charges indicate they had received $2,080.45 for the names they turned in.
"Emma and Alexander were interviewed and both admitted that they had forged numerous signatures that were in their packets," the charges state.
Burke turned in six packets containing at least 126 forged signatures, according to the prosecutors, while Riches submitted 10 packets with at least 352 forged signatures.
Riches is scheduled to make an initial court appearance March 27, while Burke's initial hearing is scheduled for April 3.
The forgeries were identified in December, early in the submission process, as election clerks trained in handwriting analysis compared signatures on the petitions to existing voter rolls, according to a release from the Weber County Clerk's Office. The office then notified the Weber County Attorney's Office and the lieutenant governor's office.
"I've been asked if we really review every signature in an election or a petition. Yes we do," Ricky Hatch, Weber County clerk/auditor, said in the release. "Every county in the state looks at every signature, every time, whether it's on a vote-by-mail envelope or in an initiative packet. Detailed controls such as these safeguard the integrity of our elections."
The charges come on the heels of a case filed in Davis County earlier this month, where another Gather employee, Paul James Patterson, 38, of Layton, was charged with three counts of misconduct of electors or officers, a class A misdemeanor.
Tanner Leatham, founder of Gather, confirmed Wednesday that all three employees accused of forging signatures are no longer working with the company. He also noted the former employees were remorseful and cooperated with law enforcement.
"These individuals have come clean," Leatham said. "They have done everything they can to fix their wrongs and get on a better path."
Gather, which has been around for just over two years, has cooperated with investigators in both counties, Leatham said, including providing GPS location records and other data the company collects as its employees work.
He also noted that employees sign contracts emphasizing multiple times they must be honest with the people they interact with and follow the state's laws for collecting signatures.
"We've had a couple thousand people over the past two years work for us," Leatham said. "There's always people who think they are above the rules and that they are smarter than the system, and they're not. They always get caught, they always get turned in, and we do everything we can to help with that."
Leatham also warned fraud "is bound to happen again" unless Utah moves away from its pen-and-paper petition process to a more secure electronic signature-gathering system.
"This should all be digital, this should all be controlled by software run by the state," Leatham said. "I have been an advocate of pushing the state to move toward an electronic system. It's a lot safer, they can use location, they can use several other secure factors to verify that people are who they say they are, that nobody is beating the rules."
Riches is enrolled at Weber State University, according to a spokeswoman. It is not yet known whether the school will take any action, she said.
Burke attended the school from spring 2015 to spring 2017 but is no longer enrolled.