Trial of former Milwaukee election official charged with illegally requesting ballots begins

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The attorney for a former Milwaukee elections official charged with fraudulently ordering three military absentee ballots under fake names and sending them to a Republican lawmaker who embraced election conspiracy theories argued Monday in opening statements that she was a whistleblower and not a criminal.

Kimberly Zapata, the former deputy director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, is on trial for misconduct in public office, a felony, and three misdemeanor counts of making a false statement to obtain an absentee ballot. She faces up to five years behind bars if convicted of all four counts.

In Milwaukee County Circuit Court, Zapata’s defense attorney Daniel Adams told the jury that she committed no crime, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

Adams called Zapata an apolitical “whistleblower” who sought to flag a gap in the election system he described as “fair and secure.”

And, he said, she was “extremely stressed out” by the conspiracy theories and threats targeting election officials.

But Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal countered that Zapata was entrusted with safeguarding elections and she violated that trust.

Wisconsin’s election and voting laws have been in the spotlight since President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, which came under attack from former President Donald Trump and his supporters who made unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. Milwaukee, home to the largest number of Democrats in Wisconsin, has been a target for complaints from Trump and his backers.

The trial comes two weeks before Wisconsin’s April 2 presidential primary. Wisconsin is once again one of a handful of battleground states crucial for both sides in the November presidential election.

According to the criminal complaint, a week before the November 2022 election Zapata fabricated three names with fake Social Security numbers and requested military absentee ballots in those names through MyVote Wisconsin, the state’s voter database. Zapata told investigators she used her government access to MyVote Wisconsin’s voter registration records to find Republican state Rep. Janel Brandtjen’s address and had the ballots sent to her home in Menomonee Falls, the complaint said.

Brandtjen has advocated for decertifying Biden’s 2020 win in Wisconsin for the past two years and has espoused conspiracy theories supporting her position.

The complaint said Zapata told investigators she sent the ballots “to show how easy it is to commit fraud in this manner.” Zapata said she wanted Brandtjen to focus on real problems and not “outrageous conspiracy theories,” according to the complaint.

Brandtjen faces her own legal troubles and will not be called to testify. The Wisconsin Ethics Commission last month recommended felony charges against Brandtjen and a fundraising committee for Trump related to alleged efforts to evade campaign finance laws during an attempt to unseat GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Zapata was fired after her actions came to light. The defense is not expected to call her to testify, according to the Journal Sentinel.

The Associated Press

Photo: AP