AN ELECTION-fraud prosecution in Erie, pursued by the state Attorney General's Office, is sending tremors into Philadelphia, where two state House members and a state Senate candidate submitted scores of apparently bogus signatures on recent nomination petitions.
Attorney General Tom Corbett announced last week that he was filing criminal charges against former state Rep. Linda Bebko-Jones, 61, a Democrat who had represented Erie in the state House for 14 years, and her former chief of staff, Mary Fiolek.
A state grand jury alleged that when Bebko-Jones was running for re-election in 2006, she and Fiolek sat in their Harrisburg offices and forged dozens of signatures on her nominating petitions, using an Erie County phone book and the lawmaker's personal address book to find the names.
Bebko-Jones gave up her re-election bid when the charges surfaced two years ago. But Corbett pushed the case anyway, spurred by a complaint from former Democratic state senator Anthony "Buzz" Andrezeski, who said the signature of his 87-year-old mother was among those forged on the Bebko-Jones petitions.
"My mother never signed anything," Andrezeski had told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. "I think the signature was actually copied or traced. It's close, but it ain't my mommy's."
In Philadelphia, two incumbent House members - Tony J. Payton Jr. and Thomas W. Blackwell, both Democrats - are accused by opponents of turning in petitions with dozens of forged signatures, among other problems.
The same charge is leveled against Lawrence M. Farnese Jr., one of four Democratic contenders for the state Senate seat now held by Vincent Fumo.
Commonwealth Court will hear the petition challenges in the next two weeks and will decide whether the candidates have enough valid signatures to appear on the April 22 primary ballots.
Election laws in Philadelphia are the same as those in Erie. To get onto primary-election ballots, state House candidates must submit signatures, names and addresses of at least 300 voters, registered in the appropriate parties. State Senate candidates need at least 500 signatures.
The signatures are collected on candidate petitions, which are supposed to be handled by "circulators" who are also registered voters, living in the same legislative district as the candidate. Each petition has space for up to 50 voter signatures, and each is supposed to be signed by the circulator in front of a notary public.
In Philadelphia, it can be a difficult hurdle for Republican candidates, who usually have to be armed with street lists to identify registered GOP voters. But it's easier for Democratic candidates, with three out of every four voters registered Democrats.
Still, a Daily News review of the three Philadelphia Democrats' petitions shows that in each case, scores of names and addresses appear to have been written in the same hand.
Two of the campaigns admit they've got signature problems - but not enough, they say, to jeopardize their spots on the ballot.
"We were running a campaign and some folks involved in the campaign were not working as hard as they should have been," said Payton. "Those folks that were involved, not putting forth the required effort, have been disassociated with the campaign. But at the end of the day, I think we will be fine in terms of the petition challenge."
"The reason that you collect more than the number that you need," Farnese said Friday, "is that sometimes the voter has moved, sometimes he's not registered, sometimes he's not in the right party . . . I am confident we have more than enough signatures and we will be on the ballot."
In a telephone interview with the Daily News, Farnese would not address the handwriting similarities in hundreds of his signatures. His campaign manager, Renee Gilinger, had acknowledged the similarities in a prior interview.
Blackwell did not return calls placed last week by the Daily News. A week earlier, when his opponent, community activist Vanessa L. Brown, filed a challenge against his petitions, Blackwell had treated it as routine.
"It's a case of the outs wanting to be in," Blackwell said. "I'm not worried about it . . . I had people in charge of [collecting signatures]. They looked fine to me."
Brown's lawyer, Adam C. Bonin, said that in addition to Blackwell submitting several hundred signatures in identical handwriting, two of his circulators were registered to vote in Delaware County, not in Philadelphia.
At least 20 people are listed as signing Blackwell's petitions twice - with different signatures, Bonin said.
Even in situations where a candidate can point to the requisite number of valid signatures on petitions, there's a potential problem with intentional submission of false signatures.
Each candidate for state office is required to sign an affidavit swearing not to "knowingly violate any election law."
There's no indication that the state Justice Department is looking at any of the Philadelphia situations - but it wouldn't take much to make that happen.
"Typically, the way it works is, if someone makes a complaint with us alleging forgery, we'll investigate," said Kevin Harley, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. "Particularly if it involves an incumbent state representative, we have original jurisdiction."
Guy D. Lewis, an emergency-room nurse seeking to unseat Payton, is threatening such a complaint unless Payton drops his re-election bid.
"We're asking for Payton to step down out of the race or we'll forward this to the attorney general," said Bruce Kilpatrick, Lewis' deputy campaign manager. "That was our game plan from the beginning. Now that this [the Bebko-Jones prosecution] has come out, we'll play the card a little sooner."
Lewis' challenge alleges that Payton included the names - and ostensible signatures - of several people who were already dead, on petitions that Payton circulated personally.
In a couple of cases, Kilpatrick said, Lewis recognized the names of the dead people because he had gone to their funerals.
"If that's what they want to allege, it will all come out in court," Payton said. "Anybody can make claims, but it's another thing to prove it."