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SFPD investigating attempted theft of signed school board recall petitions

A signature-gathering effort at a local farmer’s market grew contentious after a bystander attempted to steal signed recall petitions from a volunteer on Sunday, according to eyewitness accounts. 

Man Kit Lam, a volunteer for the campaign to recall three members of the San Francisco Board of Education, said that the alleged thief, described by witnesses as a male appearing to be in his 20s and wearing red glasses, tried to steal roughly 20 signed petitions from his table at 3rd Avenue and Clement Street on Sunday. As Lam turned to assist another signator, the suspect grabbed and walked away with at least one clipboard full of signed recall petitions, he said.

“All of a sudden, I noticed at least one clipboard was gone,” Lam told Here/Say. “I saw him—he was across the street—and he was tossing the clipboard underneath a vehicle.” 

Lam, a SFUSD parent, immigrant from Hong Kong, and former anti-corruption investigator, walked across the street and confronted the suspect. Exclusive video shows the alleged thief initially arguing with Lam and denying wrongdoing. Moments later, however, the suspect produces what appears to be a batch of petitions from his jeans and hands it over, saying: “You caught me.” 

Lam filed a police report, and says he plans to press charges if the suspect is apprehended. In video recordings obtained by Here/Say, at least one other eyewitness is heard describing the would-be heist to police officers, saying that he spotted the suspect running off with petitions. 

Man Kit Lam provides an eyewitness account to SFPD on Sunday, May 30 after signed BOE recall petitions were allegedly stolen from his table at the farmer’s market. | Photo by Jenny G. Shao

On Wednesday, SFPD spokesperson Robert Rueca said the investigation is “active and ongoing” and asked anyone with information to contact the department’s tip line.

Under California election code, taking by force or stealth any initiative, referendum or recall petition with signatures affixed to it from a signature gatherer is a crime punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. 

“Even if the petitions stolen were not large numbers…it is interfering with the process. It is an attempt to intimidate us,” said Siva Raj, a SFUSD parent who co-launched the recall campaign with his partner Autumn Looijen.

The recall effort—fueled largely by concerns over a slow reopening process—is targeting Board President Gabriela López, Vice President Faauuga Moliga and Commissioner Alison Collins, the three Board of Education members currently eligible for recall. The campaign must deliver 51,325 valid signatures per school board member, equivalent to 10 percent of registered voters in San Francisco, by September 1. If that effort succeeds, the recall will qualify for a special election. 

The Board of Education is one of a few recall efforts taking place locally and at the state level this year. 

A campaign to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom already gathered the necessary number of signatures and will appear on the ballot in a special election later this year. In San Francisco, in addition to the Board of Education recall campaign, there are two active efforts to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin. The first effort, which launched in March,  has until August 11 to gather at least 51,325 valid signatures; a second effort launched in late May and must gather that amount by October 25 in order to qualify for a special election.

Lam said he began volunteering with the Board of Education recall to speak up for his son, a SFUSD student who has struggled during distance learning, and because Collins “insulted the entire Chinese community” in publishing offensive tweets about Asian families and later suing the school district for $87 million. 

Lam added that he’s been harassed multiple times while working the recall table, with strangers shouting insults and, on at least one occasion, accusing him of being a “right-winger” and funded by tech money. 

“My wife said, ‘I’m a Democrat. I’ve been a Democrat since before you were born,’” Lam added. 

The Board of Education recall effort has raised about $100,000 to date, according to organizers, about half of which is from small donors giving $100 or less. Lam said he’s been spending the majority of his free time volunteering for the recall, which he sees as a fundamental democratic right. 

“In San Francisco, we praise this city as so liberal and so democratic. But we have people—they are nuts. And they are doing things that are undemocratic,” Lam continued. “This is America. We have the right to petition the government. I’m not doing something illegal, but he is.”

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