FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Eight North Dakota State University football players, including four starters, will remain on the roster while criminal charges against them for forging signatures on ballot initiative petitions are resolved, their coach said Tuesday.
The players were hired, at $9 an hour, to gather signatures for two citizen initiatives, one to set up a state conservation fund and the other to make marijuana legal for medical treatments. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said many of the petition signatures were copied from phone books or fabricated.
North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger said the alleged fraud made both initiatives ineligible for a statewide vote in November.
Stenehjem said 11 people have been charged in the case, including the eight players for the defending Football Championship Subdivision champions.
Four are starters — running back Samuel Ojuri, defensive backs Marcus Williams and Brendin Pierre, and offensive lineman Josh Colville. Backup defensive backs Bryan Shepherd and Aireal Boyd, reserve middle linebacker Antonio Rodgers and Demitrius Gray, a freshman wide receiver, also face charges. Gray is a redshirt and does not travel with the team.
Bison coach Craig Bohl said the players will be eligible to play this weekend against Colorado State and he didn't expect the charges to be a distraction to the team.
"I think they are very fully aware of their situation and thus far they've been very focused," Bohl said. He said any team discipline will be decided after the legal proceedings end.
Bohl removed backup linebacker Brandon Jemison from the team two weeks ago after Jemison was charged with indecent exposure.
NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor said the school takes all charges seriously, but he did not believe the latest case warranted immediate discipline.
"In terms of other issues across the country that student-athletes get in trouble for, this doesn't rank to the level where I think they need to be suspended for a certain amount of time," he said.
Supporters of the conservation initiative paid a consulting firm $145,000 to collect the petition signatures it needed to qualify for the ballot. The measure's chairman, Stephen Adair, a regional director for Ducks Unlimited in Bismarck, said about $500,000 in television advertising time had already been booked for the fall campaign.
Adair said he felt "sick to my stomach" when he learned of the alleged fraud over the weekend. Stenehjem said the sponsoring committees of the conservation and marijuana initiatives were not themselves suspected of fraud.
The attorney general said the misdemeanor charges filed against the 11 circulators carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Aside from the eight NDSU football players, those accused include a former Bison footballer, a woman and a man who is not connected with NDSU's football program.
Jaeger said workers checking the petitions noticed repeated Zip code mistakes, names "signed" in the same hand and other indications the signatures were faked. In one instance, a person signed the name of Hillary Rodham, who is better known as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and listed her as living at the White House, he said.
Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents interviewed the circulators, who said they could not say which signatures on their petitions were genuine and which were not, Stenehjem said. Petition circulators are required to sign a statement declaring the signatures they gathered were properly obtained.
With the suspect petitions disqualified, neither initiative had enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, Jaeger said.
Adair said the signature gatherers had been paid $9 an hour. Telephone and email messages left with the consulting firm that supervised the conservation campaign, Terra Strategies LLC of Des Moines, Iowa, were not returned Tuesday.
Jaeger said three other initiative petitions qualified for the November ballot. They seek to expand the rights of farmers and ranchers to run their agricultural operations, ban smoking in all public workplaces and make it a felony crime to inflict extreme cruelty on a dog, cat or horse.
Dale Wetzel reported from Bismarck, N.D.