LOS ANGELES (UPI) — The surging momentum of the ambitious recall campaign against California’s beleaguered Gov. Gray Davis could be stalled for months by a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday that threatens to eventually scuttle the entire issue.

A trio of determined lawyers went to state court in Los Angeles Tuesday morning to file a lawsuit that contends large numbers of recall petitions were illegally circulated — in some cases, by carpetbaggers and convicted felons — in three counties and should be tossed out, which would conceivably throw the entire recall effort into chaos and result in its lonely death in the exile of complex litigation.

“There is nothing frivolous about maintaining the integrity of the election process,” said attorney Ray Boucher, whose Beverly Hills firm is one of two that filed the suit on behalf of five individuals and “all others similarly situated.”

Maintaining the sanctity of democracy is indeed a lofty goal that could also shift the momentum to Davis by bottling up the recall process for months and keeping it off the ballot and by way of default, out of the headlines.

The suit alleges that the recall campaign bankrolled by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has gubernatorial ambitions of his own, violated California election laws as it scoured the state for signatures at shopping centers, swap meets and anywhere else registered voters are know to congregate.

“I was shopping for organic produce at the local farmer’s market in El Segundo and was approached by a man who did not even ask if I was a properly registered voter or not,” a woman who did not wish to be identified told United Press International. “All he wanted was my signature.”

It asks the court to order a halt to the verification process and the voiding of signatures gathered improperly in the heavily populated counties of Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange.

Specifically, the suit alleges that some of the signature gatherers were ex-cons or out-of-state residents who listed cheap motels as their California residence address and worked for $1 a signature. State law requires petitions to be circulated by registered California voters, which is difficult to do if the signature gatherers live in Arizona or Colorado or Washington — as is alleged in the lawsuit.

In addition, recall opponents armed with video cameras sleuthed out various locations around Southern California where recall petitions were left “unattended” and with the verification signature attesting that the signer was a registered California voter already filled in. This seemingly minor slip, the attorneys alleged, could mean that virtually anyone could sign their name — or someone else’s name — to a petition that they feel is clearly aimed at subverting the will of the voters who re-elected Davis by a narrow margin last November.

“We are not attacking anyone who has legitimately signed a lawful petition,” noted attorney Paul R. Kiesel. “This suit challenges the legitimacy of out-of-state professional signature gatherers hiring felons and non-registered voters to gather signatures.”

“This suit contends that the proponents of this recall hired these bounty hunters … in order to promote their conservative agenda and stick the California taxpayers with a $30 million to $50 million bill for their special election,” he said.

Monica Getz, a spokeswoman for Issa, told reporters after the news conference that the legal challenge was “pathetic;” however she conceded she had no idea how her boss and the recall supporters might respond to the lawsuit at a hearing Wednesday afternoon before Judge Charles McCoy, the head of the complex litigation branch of the Los Angeles County courts.

“This is a pathetic attempt to derail the democratic process,” Getz fumed. “It’s a three-ring circus.”

The recall organizers have been riding a wave of support as Davis struggles with a massive $38 billion budget deficit and dismal approval ratings. The earliest they can get the recall on the ballot is November and it could be next March if California’s 58 county registrars don’t finish verifying the 1.8 million petition signatures in time.

The registrars’ deadline for reporting the signatures to the secretary of state is Sept. 3, although the chances of the recall getting on the ballot in November are greater the earlier the signatures are verified.

The recall campaign went so far as to file their own lawsuit last week to try to speed up the verification process, so the idea of spending weeks or months before McCoy would appear to be disappointing at best.

“We just hope the registrars keep on counting,” Getz lamented.

Kiesel and his cohorts denied they were deliberately trying to bog down the election in order to save Davis’ skin. Kiesel told UPI that going the complex litigation route would actually save time because judges in McCoy’s division have much smaller caseloads than their colleagues in civil court.

“It’s better than being in downtown Los Angeles where most of the judges are juggling 300-400 cases,” Kiesel pointed out. “We don’t have the luxury of time.”

McCoy, who is considered a precise and serious jurist, could agree to expedite the process of gathering evidence and taking depositions. Even if he does so, the wheels of justice only move so fast and the slow cog will give Davis the luxury of some breathing room.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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