Next week, a judge will begin hearing arguments over the validity of conservatives’ petition seeking to overturn Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a law that would protect LGBT people and other groups from discrimination but has yet to take effect because of these legal challenges. The city of Houston rejected the signatures last year on technical grounds; many full pages of signatures could not be accepted because they were not filled out properly by petition circulators as city law dictates. Evidence has now surfaced suggesting that some of the signatures may have also been forged.
According to Houston Press, the city has pointed out that Jared Woodfill, the former Harris County Republican Chairman who filed suit to have the petitions validated, had previously accepted “facially valid” election petitions, though likely unknowingly. Nevertheless, Houston officials also provided samples of HERO signatures that were “purportedly from many different people, all of whom have the same handwriting.”
Because of these allegations, anti-gay activist Steven Hotze has dropped out of the suit he had originally filed jointly with Woodfill.
The blog HOUequality, set up by local activists to defend HERO, has also uncovered some incriminating information about the petition collection process. One of the individuals who helped collect signatures for the petition testified in his deposition that he did not actually collect the signatures that he signed off on. “They were not in my presence,” he admitted.
“But sitting here today, will you stand by your affidavit on that page that those are genuine signatures that were made in your presence?” he was asked. “Absolutely not,” he replied. In fact, he suggested that as many as 60 or 70 percent of the signatures were collected by other people when he was not present. He also admitted upon examination that signatures on pages he swore off on had similar handwriting.
Currently, the parties are squabbling over whether the case should proceed as a bench trial or a trial by jury. Brad Pritchett at HOUequality points out that Houston’s city charter specifically calls for this kind of issue to be settled by a district judge, but opponents are demanding a trial by jury so that they can play the victim. The judge is expected to settle this issue as early as Tuesday, and the trial will begin next week.