Ed. — From the Sunday, April 11, print edition. This story has been updated to include a scheduled trial date.
COURTHOUSE — Justin Burns, a former candidate for the Virginia Beach School Board, carried nominating petitions that included the names and purported signatures of people who told The Independent News they did not sign them.
Burns faces two felony charges related to nominating petitions he filed with local election officials last year when he sought an at-large seat on the School Board. Questions about whether he had enough signatures at the time nearly kept him off the ballot, but the Virginia Beach Electoral Board voted to qualify him in a June meeting. Burns later left the race.
He is accused of making a false statement or entry in a report under a section of election law and representing a forged document as true. A grand jury indicted Burns in September, and, that month, he told The Independent News he was learning of the charges from a reporter.
A capias issued in September was resolved in March. Circuit Court records show Burns was released on $3,500 bond on Wednesday, March 17. After the original version of this story was published in print, a trial date was scheduled for Wednesday, July 7, according to an online court record.
Formerly a student at Virginia Wesleyan University, Burns is now a sophomore at University of Massachusetts, according to information filed with the court. He serves as a commissioner with the city’s Clean Community Commission.
Burns did not respond to a call seeking comment on Monday, April 5. He is being represented by attorney Stephen Pfeiffer, who did not respond to calls seeking comment last week.
The Independent News obtained the petitions Burns filed through a public records request. The newspaper contacted some of the people listed in them whose names appeared similar to other printed and signed names – including the family of someone who apparently spoke with an investigator. During an interview in September, Virginia Beach Voter Registration & Elections Director Donna Patterson said her office referred the matter to the commonwealth’s attorney after noticing signatures that looked similar, and that office referred it to a special prosecutor from Gloucester County.
The newspaper reached people listed on four different documents said to have been witnessed by Burns. He represented that he had “witnessed the signature of each person who signed this page or its reverse side,” and his signature was notarized on documents delivered to election officials.
Karen Schafer, whose name appears on one such petition, said she did not recall signing the document. “I wouldn’t have done that,” she said during a telephone interview. After The Independent News texted an image of her name and signature to her, she responded, “Definitely NOT me.”
Chris and Kendall Ziegler appear on the petitions filed in June, shortly before the deadline for Burns to make the ballot, as does the name Chris Ziegler’s mother, Frances Basnight, who lived with them until her death in November.
Chris Ziegler, after checking with his wife, said they didn’t sign the petition. The Independent News texted images of the document to them. “Definitely neither of ours,” Chris Ziegler responded via text message. “I wouldn’t have signed ‘Christopher.’ … Not Frances Basnight, either.”
Helena Gourdine-Thorpe, said her husband, Bruce Thorpe, has spoken with an investigator about his name’s appearance on a petition for Burns. He never signed, she said.
“We’ve been married 35 years,” she told a reporter who showed her a copy of the petition at their home on Monday, April 5. “I’m certain it is not his signature.”
One person from the Christopher Farms area, who confirmed their identity but did not want their name printed, took out their license to show a reporter the difference between their own signature and what Burns turned in.
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