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District Attorney Chesa Boudin asked for recusal from petition theft case

A high-profile petition meddling case took a new turn with the victim, Man Kit Lam, asking San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin to recuse himself from the case and refer it instead to the California Attorney General. 

An attorney for Lam, Paul D. Scott, wrote a letter to Boudin requesting a voluntary recusal in the case. Citing a potential conflict of interest, the letter asked that the case be removed entirely from the District Attorney’s office and sent to state law enforcement. 

As first reported by Here/Say, the initial incident took place at a May 30 farmers’ market in the Richmond District. 

Lam, a volunteer for a campaign to recall three members of the San Francisco Board of Education, was gathering signatures when a bystander allegedly walked off with a batch of signed petitions, a misdemeanor under California election law. A subsequent confrontation was captured on video.

According to Lam’s attorney, Lam also had a batch of petitions for a separate campaign to recall Boudin at the table. Before walking off with the unsigned school board petitions, the suspected thief had also signed a fake name on one of the petitions to recall Boudin, according to the letter. 

Signing a fake name on a petition or ballot is a felony under California law and also raises a conflict of interest issue given that the suspect took the action to benefit Boudin, wrote Scott in the recusal request.  

The handling of the case will impact “the public’s perception of the integrity of government,” Scott wrote. “In these circumstances, where the conduct at issue is of paramount public importance, the law plainly requires that you be recused.”

The District Attorney’s office did not respond to Here/Say’s request for comment, but told the San Francisco Chronicle that the case has been referred to the California Attorney General. A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office confirmed that the District Attorney had been in touch on the matter, but declined to give further details.

Lam also filed a complaint with the California Secretary of State, which oversees elections in California. 

No arrest has been announced in the case. Jewish Vocational Services, a social services nonprofit in San Francisco, announced earlier this month that it dismissed an employee who they identified as the suspect in the case. 

The San Francisco Police Department maintains that the case is an active investigation, and that officers have gathered evidence and witness accounts. SFPD had earlier referred the case to the District Attorney’s office for purposes of obtaining a warrant, according to Lam. 

Police officers generally have two avenues for obtaining an arrest warrant: If they plan on presenting a case to a prosecutor, they can request that the District Attorney conduct its own investigation and obtain the warrant. They can also bring evidence directly to a judge. In either case, the law enforcement officer must demonstrate probable cause for the arrest. 

Lam told Here/Say that he hopes to press charges against the suspect, describing the May 30 incident as part of a pattern of harassment towards recall signature gatherers: “I don’t want this guy to get off the hook,” he said. 

Lam, a former investigator for the Independent Commission Against Corruption in Hong Kong, said he began volunteering for the school board recall on behalf of his son, a student at San Francisco Unified School District who has struggled with distance learning. 

Now an enrollment investigator at SFUSD, Lam said he had access to data pointing to learning loss that he believes was exacerbated by a distracted school board. Two SFUSD reports about the impact of COVID-19 on students’ academic performances revealed deep inequalities in math and reading that worsened during the pandemic. Lam emphasized that his work on the school board recall reflects his own opinion and not that of his employer. 

Here/Say reached out to all 11 Supervisors, plus Mayor London Breed’s office, for comment on the alleged crime. Mayor Breed and Supervisors Connie Chan, Ahsha Safai and Catherine Stefani responded, each denouncing the alleged theft.

“The citizen initiative process is an important part of our democracy, and people should be free to gather signatures for any ballot initiative free of fear of harm or harassment. Any attempt to subvert this process should be investigated and taken seriously,” said Jeff Cretan, Breed’s spokesperson.

Chan, who represents the Richmond District where the incident occurred, said she was glad no one was hurt during the confrontation and likened the incident to her own prior campaign for Supervisor.

“When I was running as a candidate, my signs were often illegally torn down and vandalized, opponents’ campaigns would have people harass[ing] my supporters, put out attack ads,” Chan wrote in an email. “So it is always disappointing when people resorted to dirty tactics instead of healthy debating and robust policy discussions to resolve our political differences.”

The recall campaigns for both Boudin and the school board members must gather at least 51,325 valid signatures, equivalent to 10 percent of registered voters in San Francisco, before their respective deadlines in order to qualify for a citywide election. 

The school board recall is targeting Board President Gabriela López, Vice President Faauuga Moliga and Commissioner Alison Collins, the three members currently eligible for recall. That campaign must deliver the necessary number of signatures by Sept. 7. 

There are two active petitions to recall Boudin: The first, which launched in March 2021, has until Aug. 11 to meet the signature threshold. A second campaign launched more recently has until Oct. 25 to deliver the necessary signatures. 

Annie Gaus can be reached at
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