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No Confidence

Matt Maguire
Janet Orsi

King of the Hill: During the debate over the fate of Lafferty Ranch, City Councilman Matt Maguire conducted tours to the area.

Questions linger despite charges in Petaluma voter-fraud case

By Paula Harris

AFTER A 16-MONTH probe into what state investigators call one of the biggest voter-fraud scandals in California, the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office and the state Election Board have wrapped up investigations of the Petaluma voter-fraud case, in which some 2,000 signatures were forged to help a controversial land-swap measure get on the 1996 ballot.

Five people have been charged on various counts of fraud and forgery in connection with the scandal. Yet the collective sigh of relief from the community has not been forthcoming. On the contrary, many are angry because so many troubling questions remain unanswered. "We're adamant the public needs to know exactly what went on in this attempt to deceive them," says Hank Zucker, spokesman for Citizens for Lafferty. "Any arrangement that doesn't lead to a full disclosure is not acceptable."

Moreover, the fact that three of those five suspects charged have close ties to two Sonoma County supervisors, and county District Attorney Mike Mullins has not pursued that link further, does not sit well with many local political observers.

The investigation so far "is only part of the story. I'm sure there's a very extensive story about leaders in the community," says Petaluma City Councilwoman Jane Hamilton. "What disturbs me is the blanket of silence people in key positions have laid over the issue. Instead of leadership, all we're hearing is denials. They should be insisting on a full prosecution, charging for every one of those forgeries because each one has a victim."

Petition supporters backed an ill-fated attempt to place an initiative on the 1996 ballot that would have approved the swap of city-owned Lafferty Ranch, atop Sonoma Mountain, to millionaire rancher Peter Pfendler in exchange for $1.4 million and Moon Ranch, an old dude ranch at the base of the mountain.

The Independent has requested from county officials a public records act to obtain a full list of all those whose names were forged.

Two weeks ago, Mullins filed felony fraud charges against several local political movers and shakers in connection with the case. Those charged include Martin McClure, a Santa Rosa political consultant, who worked as Supervisor Paul Kelley's aide from 1994 until February 1997. McClure is active in county Republican circles and ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly in 1986. He is accused of six felony counts of forging signatures on the petitions and two counts of circulating the petitions with forged signatures.

Steve Henricksen, a candidate for the state Legislature last year and a member of the Sonoma County Republican Party Central Committee, is accused of four felony counts of forging signatures, and two counts of circulating the petitions with forged signatures. A close friend of Kelley, who assigned him a post on the Sonoma County Fair Board in 1995, Henricksen recently resigned from that post, citing "negative publicity." His wife, Donna, also stepped down from her position as an administrative aide to Kelley.

Marion Hodge, a 12-year aide to Sonoma County Supervisor Jim Harberson--who represents the Petaluma district--has been accused of a single misdemeanor: filing petitions she knew weren't circulated by Petaluma residents, as required by state law. Hodge recently resigned her position with Harberson.

Craig and Shelly Arthur, a former Petaluma couple who were arrested in May, have accepted plea bargains. The couple will be sentenced Jan. 13. Transcripts of investigator interviews with the Arthurs reveal that, as the deadline to file the petitions loomed, there was panic that they wouldn't gather enough signatures. "About a week to 10 days before the, ah, petitions were due back in, Martin [McClure] and I sat down [and decided] we weren't gonna make it, and he mentioned that we might forge some signatures and I asked him what's gonna happen when we get caught," Craig Arthur testified, according to the court transcript. "Martin, of course, working for the county as an aide to one of the supervisors, ah, represented that he knew how, how things were done and that the chances of getting caught were slim. I believed him and we went on and did that."

Hodge hired McClure, and the Committee for Choice paid him $1,200 to get signatures.

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The Lafferty swap revisited.

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MEANWHILE, Supervisors Harberson and Kelley are rushing to proclaim their innocence, saying they had no role in the scandal. "I had nothing to do with it. I was gone on vacation and came home and discovered it," says Harberson. "I asked Marion Hodge specifically if she had anything to do with this. She said no and I believed her. I was extremely disappointed and devastated she was charged with a misdemeanor. ... She was someone who never gave any indication of breaking any law."

Harberson knew Hodge was collecting signatures, and told her she had to do it on her own time. He told Hodge that he thought the initiative was "a loser," he says.

"It was obvious the people of Petaluma did not want to get rid of Lafferty," says Harberson. "While there's a presumption of innocence, I'm sure people ended up forging signatures because there was so little public support for getting rid of Lafferty."

Harberson is not surprised he's now under suspicion. "This is politics and you're going to be a target," he comments. "If you're looking for fairness in politics, you're going to be disappointed. You're not going to find it."

Meanwhile, Kelley hurriedly sent out a press release two weeks ago, after the resignations of Steve and Donna Henricksen, noting he is "shocked and surprised at the allegations around this issue."

YET ONE OF THE MAJOR unanswered questions in the probe is why certain individuals, some from outside Petaluma, and not all avid hikers and park enthusiasts, were so interested in swapping one ranch for another in Petaluma.

"Some people held the minority belief that Moon was better for Petaluma, but it's stretching the imagination to think of holding that belief to the degree they were willing to commit felonies to get that result," reasons Zucker. "A lot of people are acting as if they were bought and paid for, but there's no evidence."

Hamilton has her own theory: "People were interested because it was a county network, a small network that wanted to help Peter Pfendler with his agenda. They were willing to risk their careers," she claims.

Pfendler did not return calls last week for comment.

According to county election records, in 1993 Harberson received $1,500 in campaign contributions from Peter and Connie Pfendler. Between 1985 and 1994, Harberson also received $700 from Matt Hudson, Pfendler's attorney, and $450 from Donald Smith, who filed the failed initiatives for the Committee for Choice.

In 1994, Kelley received $550 in contributions from campaign manager Martin McClure, and $130 from Stephen Henricksen, who also loaned him $500. Also, in 1994, he received $400 from Craig Arthur.

Meanwhile, Harberson is under fire from Petaluma City Council members and others who charge that on the county level he's obstructing plans to turn Lafferty into a wilderness park, as opponents of the swap desired. "[Harberson] certainly isn't helping either to move Lafferty along or to get any other regional park, though a year ago he said he'd look for another site for a park with more family facilities," says Zucker. "[Access to Lafferty Ranch] is being fought every step of the way--Harberson is certainly listening to his friends on the mountain more than his neighbors in Petaluma."

Harberson disagrees, saying the delays are necessary to fulfill EIR requirements. "The city has to do an EIR because of state law--it's unbelievable the City Council would not want to have a full EIR--and I can't move this along legally," he says.

He's asked Pfendler to dedicate the remainder of Moon Ranch as a regional park. Since Moon is more accessible, says Harberson, most people would go there, it would be used more than Lafferty, and Pfendler would have his privacy. Pfendler, says Harberson, has not yet responded to the request. Harberson adds that the open space district has already paid $1.2 million to Pfendler for development rights on Moon.

This week, Petaluma Police Chief Pat Parks told the Independent that the department intends to review the entire voter-fraud case and will ask the District Attorney's Office to investigate further if it sees a need. Meanwhile, City Council members and community activists are left to guessing games. "No one is coming forward. Why are the people who sponsored the initiatives not coming forward?" asks Hamilton. "The people who are silent are still holding out on the public and are still planning to run for office and do other things in the community. Lafferty cost us our innocence.

"It almost makes you wonder if there's buried treasure up there."

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From the Nov. 26-Dec. 3, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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