10:00 PM PST on Friday, January 8, 2010

Sacramento Bureau

The Riverside County Republican Party has launched a voter-registration drive with the help of an Inland signature gatherer who has been at the center of past controversies.

The effort marks the county party’s most concerted paid push to sign up new GOP voters since at least 2003. It comes as Republicans look to stem recent registration losses, protect vulnerable seats and position themselves to take advantage of any voter backlash against Democrats in this year’s midterm elections.

The latest campaign-finance reports show that the Riverside County party’s state and federal committees have paid about $15,000 for voter registration efforts since Nov. 1.

All of the money has gone to John Burkett, of Lake Elsinore, who runs a signature-gathering firm. Burkett has received 7,000 blank voter-registration affidavits in recent weeks, according to the Riverside County registrar of voters.

In 2006, Burkett’s firm was hit by voter-registration fraud allegations in Orange and San Bernardino counties.

Dozens of voters claimed their party affiliation had been switched to Republican without their knowledge by signature collectors working for Burkett.

The San Bernardino County district attorney’s office launched an investigation. The San Bernardino County GOP severed ties with Burkett after officials found problems with hundreds of registration affidavits. Burkett sued the county party, claiming his firm was owed $25,000.

Burkett denied any wrongdoing. He could not be reached for comment this week.

Riverside County GOP chairman Kenneth Minesinger also has been unavailable for comment in recent days.

The California Republican Party gave the Riverside County GOP $23,700 for voter-registration efforts in November, plus another $28,000 this week.

“I think Riverside’s done a great job and the numbers coming back are good,” said Brent Lowder, the state GOP’s chief operating officer.

Lowder said the state party has stringent standards in place to detect fraudulent registrations and prevent a repeat of the problems in 2006. It is aware of the allegations involving Burkett, he said.

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