COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Ohio's elections chief named a special investigator on Wednesday to review what he calls "significant disparities" in a marijuana legalization group's ballot petitions and said he is subpoenaing the campaign's director.
In another development, Attorney General Mike DeWine on Wednesday rejected the petition summary for the Ohio Medical Cannabis Amendment, which seeks to legalize marijuana for medical use in 2016.
The announcement by Secretary of State Jon Husted is the latest show of force by the state's Republican powerbrokers against ReponsibleOhio. The group seeks to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would mark one of the nation's most significant leaps in marijuana policy, taking Ohio from a complete prohibition against cannabis use to legalization for both medical and recreational use.
Husted said special investigator David Bowers will explore why significant numbers of petition signatures collected by ResponsibleOhio were invalid and some physical forms didn't match electronic copies. If such discrepancies are a product of fraud, they are subject to criminal penalties up to a fifth-degree felony.
"As with every possible case of election fraud, it is my responsibility to investigate and hold accountable anyone who may have cheapened the voice of all Ohioans by cheating the system," he said in a statement.
Husted also said he planned to subpoena ResponsibleOhio executive director Ian James and records from his consulting firm, The Strategy Network.
James said in a statement that ResponsibleOhio followed the law and brought the discrepancies cited by Husted to his office's attention.
ResponsibleOhio legal counsel Andy Douglas, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice, said Husted "will have to answer for" his treatment of the campaign.
"Instead of working with us and addressing the problems within his office and at the county boards of election, Secretary Husted has slapped us with a subpoena meant to silence us and chill any future opposition," Douglas said in a statement. "He even deputized a former prosecutor to investigate us, then bragged about his past success gaining convictions - all in a further attempt to frighten, harass and silence us."
Earlier this month, Husted found about 276,000 of the initial 695,000 signatures ResponsibleOhio submitted were valid. The group faces a midnight Thursday deadline for submitting more signatures; 305,591 are required to make the ballot.
Prior to that declaration, Husted had issued a warning to county election boards, urging them to take special care in reviewing the marijuana petitions for fear of problems. The campaign offered the opportunity to register to vote for those who were unregistered but wanted to sign the petitions. Husted said an alarming number of those registrations were faulty.
"Fraud and sloppiness have more in common than being the devastating cause of undermining voter confidence," Husted said. "They are illegal and will not be tolerated by my office."
Before its summer break, the Republican-controlled state Legislature authorized a competing ballot measure that would effectively block the legalization effort by banning a cartel-like setup that establishes 10 privately run growing sites statewide.