Nine North Dakota State University football players were among 15 people formally charged Friday with faking petition signatures in a scandal that blocked two voter initiatives from getting on the November ballot.
The 15 are scheduled for their first court appearance Oct. 2 in Fargo, said Birch Burdick, the Cass County state's attorney. They were charged Friday with a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Of the 15 defendants, 12 are present or former members of NDSU's football team, the defending NCAA Football Championship Subdivision champion.
Four of the accused players are starters: running back Samuel Ojuri, offensive lineman Joshua Colville and defensive backs Marcus Williams and Brendin Pierre. The list also includes backup defensive backs Bryan Shepherd and Aireal Boyd, linebacker Antonio Rodgers and redshirt freshmen Demitrius Gray, a wide receiver, and Lucas Albers, a tight end.
Former players Joshua Gatlin, Don Carter and D.J. McNorton also are charged.
NDSU Coach Craig Bohl has said the current players will not be disciplined until the criminal charges are resolved and the allegations were not considered serious enough to suspend them from the team.
The players have been told not to comment on the case. Burdick and Tracy Peters, an assistant state's attorney, said Friday they had not been contacted by attorneys for any of the defendants. Those who can't afford attorneys can request public defenders when they appear in court Oct. 2, Burdick said.
The players were among the people hired to gather signatures for two ballot measures. One sought to establish a state fund to promote conservation, environmental and water projects, financed by a share of North Dakota's oil tax collections. The second was aimed at making marijuana use legal for people suffering from chronic pain and debilitating illnesses.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger disqualified the measures from the ballot this week, saying checks of the petition signatures had uncovered significant fraud. Jaeger said petition carriers were given daily signature quotas, and may have felt pressure to meet them by making up names.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the petitions included names copied from phone books and cellphone lists. Others appeared to be fabricated, he said.
Supporters of the conservation initiative paid Terra Strategies LLC, of Des Moines, Iowa, $130,000 to supervise petition signature collection, said Becky Jones Mahlum, a spokeswoman for Ducks Unlimited in Bismarck, N.D. Ducks Unlimited officials previously pegged the amount at $140,000 to $145,000, but Mahlum said Friday the earlier sums included amounts the organization had expected to be billed.
Mahlum said Terra Strategies had promised to implement safeguards to ensure the validity of the signatures. Documents obtained by The Associated Press show the company required petition circulators to sign a code of conduct promising not to engage in illegal activity while gathering signatures and to fill out daily reports detailing how many names they had gathered.
Jim Kottmeyer, a partner in Terra Strategies, said Friday the company was doing an internal review of the problem and cooperating with supporters of the conservation fund campaign.
"We intend to get to the bottom of figuring out what did or did not happen," Kottmeyer told The Associated Press.
David Dittloff, a regional representative of the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, Mont., told members of the group's North Dakota affiliate in an email that Terra Strategies had offered to refund its fee.
But he told the AP in an email Friday that his statement "may have jumped the gun" and referred questions to Mahlum and Stephen Adair, Ducks Unlimited's regional director in Bismarck, N.D., who was chairman of the initiative campaign. Mahlum declined to comment about the email, or say whether the conservation groups planned to sue the company to recoup their costs.