The Union County Sheriff's Office has launched a criminal investigation into what detectives say are hundreds of likely forged and fraudulent signatures on local election petitions.

The Union County Sheriff's Office has launched a criminal investigation into what detectives say are hundreds of likely forged and fraudulent signatures on local election petitions.

Authorities say the probe involves at least four people who circulated petitions in Union and Delaware counties.

The men and women were supposed to get registered voters' signatures in Marysville's Precinct 8 that would have allowed the Kroger Co. to put two issues pertaining to liquor licenses and sales on the Nov. 4 ballot, said Capt. Jeff Frisch of the sheriff's office.

In Delaware, they were collecting signatures to allow a liquor-license change for a Kroger in the Polaris area.

The sheriff's office is working with Delaware County in its investigation of a single liquor-option petition where many of the 113 signatures were apparently forged.

Officials at both county boards of elections noticed irregularities, Frisch said. In Union County, two petitions were turned in with a total of 432 signatures; elections officials found only 181 were valid.

The Marysville petitions, which were circulated July 31, sought a transfer of state liquor permits from the Kroger at 1095 W. Fifth St. to a new store west of that address in the city's eighth precinct.

Letters have gone out to the voters whose signatures are in question, including a copy of the petition with their purported signature. The sheriff's office wants to know whether or not they signed the petition.

Residents with questions about the case should contact Detective Jon Kleiber at 937-645-4100, ext. 4441, or at jkleiber@co.union.

The problems were fairly easy to spot when employees were reviewing the petitions as required, said Ameena Birchfield, deputy director of the Union County Board of Elections. Names were misspelled, the handwriting wasn't even close to what was on file for some voters and all 432 signatures were dated as being collected in one day.

The Kroger Co. had hired Columbus-based Strategy Network to handle petition work for liquor issues in other counties this election season, too, though a number wasn't immediately available. Kroger spokeswoman Jackie Siekmann said "this is disappointing news" but referred other questions to the Strategy Network.

Frisch said both Kroger and the Strategy Network are cooperating in the investigation.

Ian James, a longtime political strategist and architect of some of Ohio's most high-profile ballot-initiatives, including an advocacy group's quest to repeal Ohio's ban on gay marriage, is Strategy Network's CEO.

He said Friday morning that the people under investigation were contract workers paid by his company for each signature collected.

James said the Strategy Network has overseen the collection of more than 5 million signatures on petitions over the past decade and has employed thousands of people to do so. Only one case of signature falsification was prosecuted and James said he testified on behalf of prosecutors in that case.

He said in this case, each of the people who circulated the suspect petitions had passed his company's background checks and each had worked on petitions for the company before.

"It was rather surprising when we talk about the names involved," James said. "Actually, it is stunning."

ThisWeek is not naming the petition circulators because they have not been charged.

While some of the Kroger liquor-option petitions circulated by Strategy Network workers in other counties -- including one in Franklin County's Precinct 21C -- were invalidated because of too few valid signatures, James said he isn't aware of any allegations of forged signatures.

He said his company has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to mistakes on petitions.

"If this is true, it is voter fraud," he said. "And that is always inexcusable."

The invalidated petitions may come at a cost for Kroger. By law, liquor options can only go on a ballot when there are candidates (as opposed to tax issues only). So it will likely be a year before the company can seek the change again.

The new Marysville store is expected to be built in 2016.