Former Utah governor candidate Jan Garbett sues company over failed signature-gathering campaign

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) In this March, 19, 2020, file photo, Jan Garbett speaks after filing to run for governor, at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. Garbett, who failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the primary ballot, is now suing the company she hired to collect those signatures.

Jan Garbett, the Utah Republican gubernatorial candidate who sued the state after she failed to gather enough signatures to earn a spot on the primary election ballot, has turned her legal attention to a new target: the company that charged her campaign more than $500,000 to gather signatures.

Garbett filed a lawsuit last week in Utah’s 3rd District Court against Initiative and Referendum Campaign Management Services (IRCMS), a Washington state-based signature gathering firm she alleges misrepresented its capabilities and unjustly enriched itself on the basis of false claims.

“They had promised a lot more signatures than they delivered and it was extremely expensive,” she said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday. “They were very misleading in handling the work that they did for us.”

When Garbett, the co-founder of Garbett Homes, made the decision to enter the governor’s race after signature gathering was already underway earlier this year, she says she did so upon assurances from IRCMS that it could gather the requisite 28,000 signatures needed to ensure her spot on the primary ballot.

IRCMS President Edward Blaszak said the company would collect 35,000 signatures for her campaign — ensuring a buffer for rejected ballots — and promised a 70% to 80% validity rate, the lawsuit states. The company estimated the total cost for gathering those to be between $237,000 and $319,000.

Instead, Garbett says she ultimately paid $559,000 for just 20,597 signatures — and only 8,711 of those ended up being accepted by the state, a much lower validity rate of 42%.

“After raising concerns with [IRCMS] and Blaszak about the validity rate, Blaszak has now indicated that Garbett was not able to collect the required signatures because she entered the gubernatorial race too late,” the lawsuit states. “Blaszak has also admitted that his validity verification never evaluated whether the signatures [IRCMS] collected were even from Republican voters."

Those claims, the lawsuit states, are in “direct contradiction to the assurances and promises that Blaszak made when he sought to have Garbett and People 4 Jan enter into a contract with him and [IRCMS].” And Garbett is now seeking a return of the more than half million she paid to the company.

Cary Navotny, an Oregon-based attorney for IRCMS with Loney Law Group, said Thursday that the company denies ever having misrepresented its abilities and had made clear to Garbett that it could be difficult to get all the signatures, given the late time frame in which she entered the Republican primary fray.

“[Blaszak] definitely explained to them that this is going to be difficult, that he would do his best in the time allotted,” Navotny said in an interview.

Then COVID-19 hit, he said, complicating signature gathering further and also spiking up the cost to collect them.

“At the end, a call was made by the Garbett campaign to not go door to door anymore and so that was a huge thing,” the attorney added. “There were less and less people on the street, less access to voters. It just really, really made it difficult. It’s just as simple as that.”

Navotny blamed the high percentage of rejected ballots on Garbett’s campaign “micromanaging," noting that she submitted signatures to the state at the last possible minute despite advice from IRCMS. Candidates who submit theirs first often have a greater advantage since a single voter’s signature can only be validated once and duplicates are thrown out.

He also denied the lawsuit’s claim that IRCMS hadn’t considered voters' party affiliation as it gathered signatures.

Navotny added that he believes the lawsuit will be easily dismissed in Utah court, since there’s a line in the contract with Garbett that requires any disputes to go through arbitration in Multnomah County, Ore.

Garbett first entered the Republican primary in February, upon learning that all the candidates in the race supported President Donald Trump. She decided to gather signatures and not to also seek the convention route to the ballot because she felt a “Trump-skeptic candidate had little chance of qualifying for the primary through a Republican convention.”

Her path was complicated not only by COVID-19 but also, the lawsuit alleges, by missteps from the signature gathering firm. IRCMS “appeared to have unrealistic expectations about the Salt Lake labor market,” offering wages that were too low and resulting in a slow bout of initial hiring, the suit states.

Garbett knew the campaign had “no margin for error” and so the team decided to bring in a second signature gatherer: California-based Zero Week Solutions. The company had a contract to gather 15,000 signatures in Utah County but said it would no longer collect signatures after COVID-19 hit the state.

Amid stay-at-home directives and prohibitions on large gatherings, where candidates are typically able to gather a large number of signatures, the Republican candidate sent a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in March asking them to override the state’s signature-gathering rules in light of the pandemic.

The state election’s office has said doing so would have required changes to state law, something the governor does not have the ability to do unilaterally. But Herbert did sign an executive order later that month suspending a provision in state election code requiring that canvassers witness each signature and letting candidates send and receive petition pages electronically.

Still, Garbett failed to gather the requisite signatures to be on the ballot. And in April, she filed suit against the state, asking for a reduction in the 28,000 signature threshold.

A judge ruled she had lost about 32% of the days she otherwise could have gathered signatures due to the COVID-19 pandemic and reduced her requirement by the same amount — but she couldn’t meet the lower threshold either.

Garbett then took her case to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, asking them to lower the number even further to account for a 70% validity rate, which was what she was projecting as she was gathering signatures. That would have required about 13,660 valid signatures.

The Republican candidate couldn’t have met even that standard, though. The state elections office noted in a court filing that about 57% of the signatures she submitted were tossed for a variety of reasons, including that the signatory wasn’t registered as a Republican or had already endorsed another gubernatorial candidate’s petition.

“Everywhere I turned, it was a challenge,” Garbett recapped Thursday.

She eventually ended that legal challenge against the state and, with it, her campaign.