In a startling turn Tuesday in Colorado's race for governor, Republican candidate Walker Stapleton is withdrawing petitions that won him a spot on the June 26 primary ballot, accusing the firm that gathered signatures for him of engaging in "fraudulent conduct" and lying about it to his campaign and state officials.
The Colorado Secretary of State's Office certified April 6 that Stapleton's campaign had gathered more than the 10,500 valid signatures needed to make it onto the ballot.
But Tuesday, in a hastily called news conference, Stapleton said he is backing away from the petitions and instead will try to qualify for the ballot by seeking GOP delegates' support at Saturday's state party assembly in Boulder.
Stapleton, the state treasurer and presumed GOP front-runner in the governor's race, likely will face seven other Republicans at the assembly, where support from at least 30 percent of delegates is needed to get on the ballot.
Two other GOP candidates, Doug Robinson and Victor Mitchell, have submitted petitions, which election officials still are reviewing.
There was no immediate response to Stapleton's accusations from Dan Kennedy, who runs Colorado Springs-based Kennedy Enterprises, the company hired by Stapleton to conduct his petition drive.
Previously, Kennedy denied that his circulators did anything improper or illegal, telling Colorado Politics in an email: "[T]o the best of my knowledge, ALL of the petition circulators are Colorado residents. And ALL the signatures were gathered legally."
It's the latest chapter in a controversy over signature gathering for Colorado candidates and whether some of the gatherers were legally qualified to circulate petitions.
Before Tuesday's announcement, Stapleton had asked to intervene in a lawsuit filed last week seeking to remove U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs from the 5th Congressional District's slot on the GOP primary ballot. The suit alleges that some signatures on Lamborn's petitions were gathered improperly.
Lamborn and Stapleton both employed Kennedy Enterprises to gather signatures, potentially putting Stapleton's petitions at risk if the lawsuit prevails.
Five Republican voters had sued Secretary of State Wayne Williams, alleging that several paid circulators hired by Lamborn didn't satisfy legal residency requirements. That lawsuit was being heard Tuesday in Denver District Court.
But Stapleton's attorneys withdrew their motion to get involved in the lawsuit, just hours before the candidate announced withdrawal of his petitions.
In a strongly worded letter to Williams asking that his petitions be rejected, Stapleton said his campaign learned Monday that the Robinson campaign's allegations against a Stapleton circulator had merit.
"Last night, my campaign learned that Kennedy Enterprises, LLC, the signature gathering firm we retained to conduct and manage our petition gathering process, engaged in fraudulent conduct when gathering signatures in support of my candidacy for Governor," Stapleton wrote. "Specifically, Kennedy Enterprises employed a 'trainee circulator' by the name of Daniel Velasquez and allowed this individual to circulate petitions which were then executed by another circulator as though that circulator - and not Mr. Velasquez - had circulated them.
"Kennedy Enterprises repeatedly lied to my campaign when we asked them about news reports alleging this conduct weeks ago. Until last night, Dan Kennedy and those working for him insisted that no such individual had ever worked for Kennedy Enterprises. Worse than lying to my campaign, they lied to your office when your office specifically asked about these news reports."
In a statement to Colorado Politics, Robinson cheered Stapleton's move but didn't let him off the hook.
"I applaud Walker for doing the right thing and for withdrawing his petitions. However, this doesn't change the fact that this fraud took place right under his nose," Robinson said.
A congressional candidate needs 1,000 valid signatures from fellow party members to get on the ballot. Statewide candidates, including for governor, need 10,500 - 1,500 from each of the state's seven congressional districts.
Lamborn submitted 1,269 signatures that passed muster, while Stapleton submitted 11,325 valid signatures, the Secretary of State's Office reported.
Michael Francisco, the Colorado Springs attorney in the lawsuit against Lamborn, said investigators have determined that nearly 700 of Lamborn's signatures were gathered by paid circulators who registered to vote in Colorado but "lack any real connection to Colorado" and don't qualify as legal residents.
Using the same criteria, Francisco is alleging that more than 8,000 of Stapleton's signatures were gathered by circulators whose claims of residency "don't pass the smell test."
The dispute centers on a longstanding practice employed by petition-gathering firms of hiring temporary workers, many of whom travel from state to state working petition drives.