State investigators have launched a probe to determine whether voter fraud was committed during a failed attempt to recall District 7 Councilman Chris Anderson.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is scrutinizing about 300 signatures that were tossed out by the Hamilton County Election Commission to learn whether the signatures on the petition were forged.
TBI spokesman Josh DeVine said investigators were requested by the local district attorney's office.
The recall attempt fell about 400 signatures short of the required 1,600 needed to force a public referendum on Anderson. The freshman councilman's opponents turned in more than 3,000 signatures, but more than half were thrown out after the election commission determined that the signer lived outside the district or because the signature appeared fake.
Charlie Wysong, who helped organize the recall effort, said there was no intent to act illegally.
"There wasn't anyone going out to try to fraudulently recall a councilman," Wysong said. "It was simply a matter of people making mistakes."
Election Administrator Kerry Steelman said in early May that the suspicious signatures didn't match the voters' registration cards and on some petition sheets the names were signed in alphabetical order, raising a red flag.
Election officials were careful to point out that the Election Commission member Jerry Summers, one of two Democrats on the five-member board, was the one who reported the suspected fraud to the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office.
The commission took no action, said Election Commission Chairman Mike Walden, but the board will cooperate with the investigation.
Before the TBI inquiry was announced publicly, Anderson's attorney, Stuart James, appealed to the commission to investigate the petitions further.
"We think that it is particularly incumbent on the Republican-led commission to take public and affirmative action to protect the rights of the citizens of Chris Anderson's district," Stuart wrote in an emailed statement on Tuesday. "Anything less will be viewed as abandoning the commission's duty to preserve the integrity of the vote and the electoral process."
Anderson has claimed that his opponents were backed by the local tea party and that he was targeted because he's gay. Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West said the organization isn't involved in the petition drive. District 7 residents said they knew Anderson was gay when they voted for him, but they sought his recall because he hasn't kept his promises to voters.
But Summers said he doesn't care about the politics, he requested the district attorney's office look into the case because it was the right thing to do.
"If there is nothing irregular about it, that ought to clear the air," he said. "If there is something wrong, the district attorney general and the TBI will deal with it. Forget about all the politics."
Alton Park Neighborhood Association President Gil Shropshire, who led the recall effort, didn't return calls Tuesday afternoon to comment on the investigation.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...