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 paid $9 an hour to gather signatures for two citizen initiatives, which sought to set up a state conservation fund and 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 have cooperated with investigators and any team discipline will be decided after they finish legal proceedings. The players will be eligible to play this weekend against Colorado State, he said.
The citizen initiatives advocated creating a new state conservation fund, financed by a share of North Dakota’s burgeoning oil tax collections, and the legal use of marijuana to treat symptoms of debilitating illnesses.
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 11 people in all face misdemeanor charges in connection with the alleged fraud. The charges 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.
”Several petition circulators had forged signatures on the two petitions, either by taking the names from the telephone directory, from cellphone contact lists, or by simply fabricating the names,” Stenehjem said.
Jaeger said one 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.