RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — An independent candidate must be removed from the ballot in a competitive congressional race in Virginia due to forged voter signatures on her petitions, a judge ruled Wednesday, saying he found evidence of "out-and-out fraud."
Richmond Circuit Court Judge Gregory Rupe's decision came after he heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by Democrats accusing members of Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor's campaign staff of forging signatures on petitions supporting independent Shaun Brown.
Democrats claim Taylor's campaign wanted Brown on the 2nd District ballot to weaken support for his Democratic opponent, Elaine Luria, and bolster his own re-election chances. The 2nd District spans Virginia's coastline and includes Virginia Beach.
Rupe said he found a pattern of forgery and fraud on Brown's petitions and granted a request from Democrats for an injunction to prevent Brown's name from appearing on the Nov. 6 ballot. The judge said the forgery led him to conclude that Brown has fewer than the 1,000 valid signatures she needs to appear on the ballot.
State election officials had agreed to work with their local counterparts to disqualify Brown from the ballot if the judge found her petitions didn't contain 1,000 valid signatures.
Brown told reporters she would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court of Virginia. She said she did not know about Taylor's staffers collecting signatures and said her own campaign workers had collected enough valid signatures for her to be on the ballot.
Taylor has said he knew his staff was circulating petitions for Brown, but he denounced the use of forged signatures.
A special prosecutor and state Attorney General Mark Herring are conducting a separate criminal investigation.
During Wednesday's hearing, Jeffrey Breit, an attorney for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said that several of Taylor's campaign staffers and his former campaign consultant had signed affidavits saying they planned to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if called to testify about forged signatures.
"What we do know is that there was a fraud committed on the Board of Elections that certified Miss Brown as a candidate," Breit said.
Taylor was subpoenaed to testify at the hearing, but Rupe granted a motion from his attorneys to quash the subpoena under a state law that protects members of Congress from being forced to testify in civil cases while the House of Representatives is in session.
"Given that the Democrat lawsuit was purely political and has now successfully excluded Shaun Brown, it's understandable that individuals would exercise their right not to testify today," Taylor's campaign spokesman, Scott Weldon, said after the judge issued his ruling.
"Our campaign will continue to cooperate with the investigation and make no further comment while it is ongoing," he said.
In a statement after the judge issued his ruling, Luria said Taylor "has dodged responsibility for the criminal actions of his paid staff."
"Scott Taylor needs to stand up and take responsibility for what Judge Gregory Rupe called 'out-and-out fraud,'" Luria said.
The scandal began last month after radio station WHRV-FM reported that Taylor staffers collected ballot signatures for Brown. Four people later told the station they never signed those petitions, even though their names appear on them. The Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported that it had found 59 people who said their signatures were fraudulent. Some of the signatures belonged to dead people.
The allegations came to light after election officials had already approved the collection of signatures that Brown's campaign submitted for her run. Therefore, Brown's lawyer, James Ellenson, argued it was too late for the court to end her candidacy.
No Virginia law addresses allegations of fraud once a candidate's ballot petitions have been certified.
Brown, a former Democrat who lost to Taylor in 2016, is facing trial in October on charges that she defrauded the federal government through a summer meal program for children.