SOUTH BEND — Knowing he may be called as a witness, St. Joseph County prosecutor Michael Dvorak has successfully petitioned the court to appoint former Vanderburgh County prosecutor Stanley M. Levco to serve as special prosecutor in an investigation into allegedly fake petitions from the 2008 Indiana primary.
Under the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct, "[a] lawyer shall not act as an advocate at trial in which the lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness," according to a new release from the St. Joseph County Prosecutor's Office.
The news is the latest development in a scandal The Tribune and Howey Politics Indiana uncovered last fall by reporting that hundreds of county residents’ signatures had been forged on petitions used to qualify Democratic presidential candidates for the primary ballot.
Butch Morgan, who headed the county Democrats for 16 years before the news reports led him to resign in October, is facing four felony charges.
Dustin Blythe, Pam Brunette and Bev Shelton — all of whom are former workers in the county’s voter registration office — are also facing multiple felony charges.
- Morgan, 63, is charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit petition fraud (Class D felony) and two counts of conspiracy to commit forgery (Class C felony).
- Brunette, 62, is charged with two counts of forgery (Class C felony), two counts of falsely making a petition of nomination (Class D felony), and two counts of official misconduct (Class D felony).
- Blythe, 38, and Shelton, 63, each are charged with nine counts of forgery and one count of falsely making a petition of nomination.
The penalty for a Class C felony is up to eight years in prison. For a Class D felony, it’s up to three years. Both carry a fine of up to $10,000.
Bonds in the case have been set at $100,000 for Morgan, $80,000 for Brunette, and $60,000 for both Blythe and Shelton.
Morgan, Shelton and Brunette posted bond Monday, county police spokesman Lt. Matt Blank said. Blythe, however, remained in custody.
Morgan said he was innocent when he resigned as Democratic chairman for the county and Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District on Oct. 17 — one day after The Tribune linked Blythe, a party volunteer and one of his trusted aides, to nine fake petition pages.
“I have done nothing wrong,” he said at the time, “and I look forward to an investigation that will exonerate me of any wrongdoing.”
Morgan and his attorney could not be reached for comment Monday.
Blythe’s attorney, Jeff Kimmell, said in a statement Monday that
Blythe “looks forward to his day in court and remains confident he will be acquitted of all charges.”
He also called on Prosecutor Mike Dvorak to appoint a special prosecutor in the case.
“Because one of the signatures alleged to have been forged is that of the prosecuting attorney,” Kimmell said, “I believe that the case will require the appointment of a special prosecutor.”
According to charging documents, a source approached investigators last year with information about a Democratic scheme to fake signatures on petitions to place the party’s presidential candidates on the Indiana primary ballot in 2008.
The source, a former voter registration worker, told investigators he participated in the scheme but also implicated Morgan as well as Blythe, Brunette and Shelton, all voter registration workers at the time.
According to the source, at a meeting at Democratic headquarters in January 2008, Morgan instructed the group to copy signatures from a petition to place Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Schellinger on the primary ballot onto separate petitions to place Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards on the ballot.
Initially, the source said, he worked on the Obama petitions, Shelton worked on the Clinton petitions and Blythe worked on the Edwards petitions. He said he personally witnessed Shelton copy signatures onto the Clinton petition.
According to the source, toward the end of January, about the same time Edwards dropped out of the race, he decided not to participate in the scheme any longer, which he said upset Brunette, then-Democratic head of voter registration and his immediate supervisor, and Morgan.
As a result, he said, Morgan put Blythe on the Obama petition.
Based on the information provided, investigators checked the Clinton and Obama petitions and discovered a number of fake signatures, according to the documents. They did so, in part, by comparing them to known signatures on record, but also by contacting some of the people whose names appeared on the petitions, the documents state.
In addition, a current voter registration worker later identified the handwriting on the pages as belonging to Shelton, Brunette and Blythe, and also provided investigators with documents containing known examples of their handwriting, according to the documents.
Dr. Deb Fleming, the county’s Republican chairwoman, said Monday was a sad day.
“These people have let down the citizens of St. Joseph County,” she said. “We need to make sure this type of behavior will not be taken lightly.
Fleming said Democrats, who have dominated local politics for decades, have “a culture of corruption” here and throughout Indiana.
“I’m sure there are other things. They’ve just never gotten caught,” she speculated. “Because they’ve been in control of St. Joseph County for so long, they felt they could get away with it.”
John Broden, the county’s current Democratic chairman, said the local party has cooperated fully with the investigation, and he noted that his first act as chairman last fall was to remove Brunette as the party’s director of voter registration.
“Following today’s announcement, Pamela Brunette and Beverly Shelton are no longer employees of the office,” Broden said. “We remain committed to the integrity of the electoral process and will take every step necessary to keep the trust of local voters.”
Staff writer Erin Blasko: