Metro Council candidate Twahna Harris agreed Monday to withdraw from the District 1 race per the terms of a settlement reached in state District Court with incumbent Trae Welch, meaning he will retain his council seat for a second term.
Welch filed a lawsuit against Harris last week alleging that several of the signatures on her nominating petition were forgeries and seeking to have her name removed from the Nov. 6 ballot.
When qualifying for office, candidates can pay a qualifying fee or submit a nominating petition in lieu of the fee.
Welch alleged that many of the signatures on Harris’ nominating petition came from one person signing for several family members.
Welch’s attorney questioned five witnesses, including a handwriting specialist and two people who said they signed other names to the petition on their behalf.
For example, Shekita McKnight testified at the hearing before Judge William Morvant on Monday that she signed for herself, her son Christopher and her daughter Te’Onna.
McKnight said Christopher McKnight was in the backyard with dirty hands at the time and told her she could sign for him. She also said she called her daughter who gave her permission to sign for her.
Robert Foley, a forensic handwriting expert, also testified that he identified at least 14 other signatures that were not consistent with the signatures on their voter registrations. Foley also said, of those 14, the handwriting was similar for those grouped with the same last name.
Harris’ attorney, Ron Johnson, argued that the people who signed the names on behalf of their family members did so with permission.
After the settlement was reached, Harris said in an interview that she did not break any rules because all the signatures were authorized.
Harris said she ended up settling because “we just couldn’t get witnesses here due to the weather to testify that those signatures were all authorized.”
Welch said it did not matter that the signors had authorization from their family members to write their names.
“You can’t do that,” Welch said. “If you could, then I could just call 1,000 friends and say, ‘Can I put your name on this?’ This is not a name drive; it’s a signature petition.”
Welch’s attorney, Christopher Whittington, also took issue with the fact that Harris often times signed her name as the witness to the signatures even when she knew the signatures were not being signed by the individual voter.
Each signature on the petition has a space next to it for a witness to sign. Harris was the witness for more than 80 of the 104 validated signatures on her petition.
Whittington also pointed out that Harris signed a statement on the petition certifying that “all of the signatures on the nominating petition are genuine and all of the statements contained in the nominating petition are true and correct.”
Welch, who is a city prosecutor in Baker, said the suit was not meant to be a personal attack on Harris. But Welch said as an officer of the court, he could not ignore that Harris was breaking laws.
“This is the cornerstone of our governmental process, and this is tantamount to election fraud,” Welch said. “I can’t turn a blind eye, just because I think I might win.”
Welch said he would meet with Harris to listen to her concerns and ideas about the district, which makes up the northern part of the parish, including Baker and Zachary.
“I hate that it ended this way. I would have preferred for it to be handled at the polls where our constituents could decide,” Harris said. “But I’m here to work with Mr. Welch, and I’m not going anywhere. This was only a stepping stone for me.”
In District 12, resident Gerry Juneau filed suit Friday alleging that incumbent Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois is ineligible to run for re-election because he lives outside the district.
Bourgeois has owned a home at 2195 Kleinert Avenue since 1988, which is in District 10. But he represents and is running for re-election in District 12, where he leases a home at 1225 Highland Park.
District 12 includes the Kenilworth, Magnolia Woods, Pollard Estates, Southdowns and Valley Park neighborhoods.
If Bourgeois is disqualified, then John Delgado, a Republican, will face Rose Carey, a Democrat, in the election. Bourgeois’ hearing will be Tuesday before Judge Tim Kelley.
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