The election petition circulated in early 2010 for state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill, had the signatures of dead people, people who had moved out of state, people who were in jail, and people who swear they never signed it.
But Pittsburgh Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, then working as Wheatley’s aide, did sign the petition, attesting its truthfulness, and submitted it. As a result, he has been charged with forgery and making false statements.
|R. DANIEL LAVELLE
Wheatley did not return calls or email requests for comment. Lavelle referred comment to his attorney, Wayne DeLuca.
DeLuca said this challenge had nothing to do with the total number of signatures on Wheatley’s nominating petitions, it only focused on the one petition Lavelle signed.
“It’s based entirely on the statement at the bottom of the form. The person standing in front of the notary has to swear the signatures are good,” said DeLuca. “He’d have had to seen every signature—nobody does that. Someone says give me that I’m going to the club, I’ll get some names, or I’m playing in a tournament I’ll get 10 names, and they hand them back. It’s always been that way. Everyone does it.”
DeLuca said he does not believe Lavelle has been singled out. He said he has handled three cases like this previously; two where the defendant went into ARD, so there was no record, and another that went to a different jurisdiction, which declined to prosecute.
I think it’s a flaw in the form. It could happen to anyone,” he said. “Danny is a good person and an honorable guy.”
As for the length of the investigation, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s spokesman Mike Manko said the office wanted to be thorough.
There were nine names on the petition that weren’t good. Lavelle is scheduled for a preliminary hearing Nov. 17.
Both charges are misdemeanors. So even if Lavelle should be convicted, it would not affect his status on city council. The City Charter states that council members must resign only if convicted of a felony. Lavelle does not stand for election again until 2013.
According to the affidavit filed by Allegheny County police Sept. 29, they interviewed residents in the Hill District and found petition signer Eric Whack had been living in North Carolina and had died months before Lavelle filed the petition March 7, as had Isaac Young, whose name was also misspelled.
Rasheed Clark had been out of the country for three years at the time, Matthew Saunders was jailed in New Jersey at the time, and both Barbara and Ebony Ponder said not only didn’t they sign the petition, but they’d never even been asked.
The original complaint was filed by Tonya Payne, Wheatley’s opponent in the 2010 state house race. Payne had previously lost her primary race for city council to Lavelle. Both Wheatley and Lavelle had previously worked for Sala Udin, whom Payne defeated for council in 2005.
Petition challenges are common, and are often used to remove candidates from ballots. In this case, when going through the petitions, Payne’s staff found one signature dated Feb. 29, 2010 , but 2010 was not a leap year.
County detectives actually began their investigation six weeks prior to the 2010 May Democratic Primary, which Payne lost by more than 2,000 votes. Her challenge to Wheatley’s petition had been denied. Payne who is the 1st ward Democratic chair, called the affair a “disgrace.”
“It’s just one more reason for people not to get involved in government,” she said.
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