Signature gatherers allege labor violations

At least three people gathering signatures for four initiatives backed by prominent Oregon conservatives said Thursday they were paid by the signature, instead of by the hour, in violation of state law.

The three plan to file complaints with the state Bureau of Labor and Industry, and have asked the Elections division of the Secretary of State’s Office to investigate, according to Patty Wentz with Our Oregon, a progressive political advocacy group.

But Brian Platt, a director of Portland-based B & P Campaign Management Inc., the firm that dealt directly with signature gatherers for the four initiatives, dismissed those making complaints as “disgruntled employees.”

In Oregon, in order to qualify a citizen initiative for the ballot, backers first have to collect thousands of signatures. To clamp down on allegations of fraud in the signature-gathering process, Oregonians in 2002 passed Measure 26, which put an outright ban on paying per signature.

Instead, state Elections Director John Lindback said Thursday, signature gatherers can be paid by the hour. Firms can set a minimum amount of signatures, but if employees come back with fewer than the minimum, they can’t be paid less than the hourly rate for work they’ve already done, only for future work, Lindback said.

Ijoma Otti, 21, a student at Portland Community College, said B & P hired him to collect signatures for four initiatives, all jockeying for a spot on the November 2006 ballot:

_ Initiative 57, an “eminent domain” proposal which would bar government from condemning private property for use by a private developer. The initiative is backed by Oregonians in Action, the property rights group behind the state’s new property compensation law.

_ Initiative 14, which would allow taxpayers to claim personal income tax deductions for exemptions claimed on federal returns, backed by FreedomWorks, an influential Oregon group that’s also called for a statewide spending limit.

_ Initiative 24, which would require judges to be elected on a district level, instead of statewide, which is also a FreedomWorks proposal.

_ Initiative 23, which prohibits insurance companies from using personal credit scores in calculating rates or premiums. The measure is sponsored by anti-tax activist Bill Sizemore.

Otti said he was told to get six signatures on each petition every hour, for a total of 24 signatures an hour. If he didn’t bring back that required number, he said, his pay for that day’s work would be correspondingly reduced.

On Thursday morning, Otti said, he told his bosses at B & P that “it was my understanding now that I am supposed to get paid by the hour. And they said, ‘Tell me how many hours you worked yesterday, we will pay you for that, and good-bye.'”

Otti also alleged that he was always paid in cash, and never given a receipt or a payroll stub. Platt disputed that, but refused to provide any documentation to the media, saying only that, “we will provide documented proof when the proper people ask for it.”

Dave Hunnicutt, the president of Oregonians in Action said the group had “no knowledge of the accusations,” and would be researching them.

But he said it sounded as though signature gatherers were “evaluated based on how good they were at gathering signatures….I don’t think the law prohibits paying a bonus.”

Lindback said the elections division will be evaluating the complaint, to determine whether it falls under the category of a civil or criminal complaint, and should have an answer by Friday. B & P was the first — and so far, the only — firm in the state to be fined under Measure 26, Lindback said, with a $2,500 fine from the 2004 election cycle, on a term limits initiative.

B & P was the subcontractor on the signature gathering for Clackamas-based Democracy Direct. The director of that company, Tim Trickey, a consultant to the Multnomah County Republican Party, declined to comment about the allegations Thursday.

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