By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Authorities in Florida opened a criminal probe on Wednesday into the activities of Strategic Allied Consulting, the firm hired by the Republican Party to register new voters in the crucial swing state ahead of next month's presidential election.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said there was enough evidence to warrant a full-blown investigation of Strategic Allied, a Virginia-based voter registration company doing work for the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Florida.
The Florida Division of Elections on Friday forwarded a complaint to the law enforcement agency after reports of suspicious voter registration forms linked to the company first surfaced in Palm Beach County.
Both the Republican National Committee and Republican Party of Florida cut ties with the company as soon as the allegations surfaced last week, and the number of Florida counties reporting suspicious registration forms connected to Strategic Allied Consulting has since grown to at least 10.
Most political analysts say Florida, the fourth most populous U.S. state and notorious for its close elections, including the 2000 cliff-hanger that put George W. Bush in the White House, is a must-win for Republican challenger Mitt Romney in November's presidential sweepstakes.
Of all the closely contested battleground states in the presidential election, Florida is the biggest prize with 29 of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win.
"After reviewing this complaint, FDLE has decided that a criminal investigation into these allegations is warranted," said Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger in an email. "This is now an active investigation."
The Florida Department of State also sent an e-mail to the state's 67 county supervisors of elections late on Tuesday instructing them to review all the voter registration forms filed by the Republican party.
"At some point, these registrations may become evidence used in court, so it is important for you to take steps to protect them from tampering," the email said.
The work required by the criminal probe may strain the resources of county election officials who are already receiving thousands of absentee ballots and must prepare for a deluge of voters on November 6.
STRATEGIC ALLIED DISPUTES CHARGES
Federal Election Commission reports from the state Republican Party show it paid Strategic Allied more than $1.3 million this summer for voter registration services.
The firm was also hired to do voter registration work for the party in four other key swing states - Nevada, Virginia, Colorado, and North Carolina - for a total of $2.9 million, according to the Republican National Committee.
In a statement late last week, Strategic Allied criticized "likely libelous comments" by the Florida Republican Party about its efforts in the state amid allegations of voter fraud.
The company was formed in June by Nathan Sproul, a conservative Arizona political consultant and a former executive director of the state's Republican Party.
Alarm over potential voter registration fraud in Florida in the run-up to the November 6 election was first raised by Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher, who flagged 106 "questionable" applications turned in by Strategic Allied this month.
Bucher - whose county introduced hanging chads and butterfly ballots to the political lexicon during the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida - said her staff had raised questions about suspiciously similar signatures and incorrect addresses and dates of birth on voter registration forms.
Submitting deliberately false voter registration information, or altering information on an application without consent, is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
(Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Tom Brown, Todd Eastham and Lisa Shumaker)