May 28, 2010 for Medill Reports
by Josh Lederman

Just when Scott Lee Cohen’s push to get on the 2010 gubernatorial ballot seemed that it couldn’t get any weirder, it did.

The latest twist includes a curbside argument over money, an allegation that a woman paid someone to lie to a reporter, and an admission by that woman she gave an inebriated man money for signatures he had collected earlier.

Medill reported Wednesday that Chicagoans were being recruited off the street and sent out with no training to collect petition signatures outside of Cohen’s brother’s pawn shop for a dollar each.

Both the campaign and Cohen’s brother denied any petition organizing was originating from Royal Pawn Shop, 428 S. Clark St.

Cohen needs 25,000 signatures from registered voters to get on the ballot to run as an independent. His deadline is June 21.

Late Friday afternoon, I returned to the pawn shop on the off-chance petitions were still being circulated.

They were, and my timing was serendipitous:

Not only were the petition collectors still there – four or five of them – one of them was loud and angry.

Robert Garrett, in gray cap on left, confronts Cohen volunteer Stephanie, second from right, outside CU2 jazz club, 416 S. Clark St. Garrett says he was paid for only 17 of 75 signatures collected.

That man, who I later learned had been circulating petitions, was demanding payment from a cigarette-smoking man outside Close Up 2, a jazz club next to the pawn shop. The first man was irate and claimed he was being short-changed. One of the others told him that “Stephanie” would be coming out shortly to pay him, and to calm down.

Minutes later, I saw a woman emerge from the club and speak to him – the same woman I saw Tuesday interacting with petition circulators, and whom I assumed to be the same Stephanie that Edward Jones told me paid him $23 in cash Tuesday night in the adjacent men-only transient hotel also owned by the Cohen family.

The group outside the club became aware of my presence and quickly dispersed.

I caught up with the man shortly after, and he agreed to a recorded interview.

Robert Garrett, 44, of Calumet City told me that not only was he only paid for 17 of the 75 signatures he collected – the rest were deemed illegible or invalid – but that Stephanie had just paid him to lie to me.

“While you were sitting up there talking to that man there, she paid me 20 more dollars,” said Garrett, who appeared to have alcohol on his breath. “Twenty dollars to talk to you to tell you they’re doing good, but they not.”

In an interview with Stephanie later, she denied that she paid Garrett to lie about the situation.

Garrett also said that homeless men renting a room in Ewing Annex Hotel above the pawn shop are being farmed out by petition circulators to do the circulating for them. The original circulators pay the subcontractor 50 cents per signature, pocketing the other half.

“It’s basically the homeless they taking advantage of,” he said. “People getting beat out of they money and not receiving what they supposed to receive.”

I spoke to Stephanie minutes later. She declined to give her last name, though she acknowledged being a Cohen campaign volunteer.

“It’s an example of how Scotty is already creating jobs,” Stephanie said. “I’m just trying to help people get ahead.”

I couldn’t ask her about Garrett’s claims she paid him to lie to me, because Garrett was standing with us. But when reached by phone later Friday, her denial went further than I expected.

“Of course not,” she said. “Did you smell the liquor on his breath? He’s drinking malt liquor.”

If ever a question was begged, this was it: The Cohen campaign, I asked, is paying drunk people to circulate petitions?

Her response was simple: She paid him for petitions he collected earlier in the week, when he was sober. Friday was simply payday.

“I just paid him for his petitions; he was drunk when he showed up,” she said. “He’s not circulating drunk. You can’t control what grown people do on their own time.”

Garrett confirmed late Friday that the signatures he was paid for Friday were collected earlier in the week.

Earlier Friday, Stephanie denied that anybody working for her is being sent out without training. Her circulators get a blank copy of a voter registration card as a template, she said, to demonstrate that signers need to provide the address on their voter card and not the one on their driver’s license.

Stephanie acknowledged that some circulators were farming out their forms to others and paying them a portion.

“Some people are giving their friends” the forms, she said. “I’ll give them $10 and then they’ll go and give them $3.”

But Stephanie said that’s not her fault.

“They’re not working for me,” she said. “I have no control over that.”

Even if they only pull in $15 from circulating Cohen petitions, she said, for the unemployed, that might enable them to feed their family and take care of their kids.

“I get my blessing by trying to help people,” Stephanie said. “It’s hard for people to get a job nowadays and every little bit helps.”