by Robin Kemp
UPDATE 8:33 p.m.: ADDS roles of GBI, Georgia attorney general, governor when a case is referred
UPDATE 9:24 p.m.: ADDS Julio comment
The Georgia State Elections Board voted February 17 to refer two cases involving alleged election irregularities by former Forest Park Elections Supervisor Lois Wright and Councilwoman Latresa Akins-Wells to the office of State Attorney General Chris Carr.
Both cases stem from the November 5, 2019 election, which saw a heated contest for months between Ward 4 incumbent and then-Morrow City Clerk Yasmin Julio, alleged improprieties in the count for the Ward 3 race between former Councilwoman Sandra Bagley and political newcomer Héctor Gutierrez, and several alleged violations by then-Elections Superintendent Lois Wright.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger issued a press release Feb. 18 noting that “The following were bound over to the attorney general’s office after the board concluded the investigations found probable cause of an election law violation….Latresa A of Forest Park for allegedly campaigning too close to a polling place; Lois W and Azelia J both of Forest Park, the City of Forest Park for various alleged violations of absentee ballot processing; Lois W and Edwin M, both of Forest Park, for allegedly distributing campaign materials at a polling place during a November 2019 local election.”
Akins-Wells declined to comment for the story. Several attempts to reach Wright on February 17 and 18 were unsuccessful, as were attempts to track down contact information for two former elections workers.
City Attorney Mike Williams said the city has removed Wright from her position as elections superintendent. The City of Forest Park website lists Wright on three appointed boards that handle business development deals for the city.
Case 2019-033 City of Forest Park (Campaigning Violation)
The State Elections office received 14 complaints, five of which were substantiated, about the November 5, 2019 election. The complaints involved allegations of both election fraud and illegal campaign activity, “mainly against the City of Forest Park Elections Superintendent Lois Wright and City of Forest Park Ward 4 Councilmember Latresa Akins-Wells.” Wells was running for reelection against Yasmin Julio.
It should be noted that the allegations are not convictions by a court of law. However, the allegations the SEB referred to the state attorney general’s office could lead to further legal action if Carr’s office decides to pursue charges.
Investigators recommended that the following alleged violations that were substantiated be referred to the state attorney general’s office:
- Latresa Akins-Wells for 21-2-4-14(d): Restrictions on campaign activities, “when she was present inside the polling location after she cast her own ballot. She also admitted to escorting voters inside the polling location to cast their ballots.”
- Lois Wright for 21-2-5-62(a)(1): Fraudulent entry, “when she inserted a date on another person’s absentee ballot application and concealed that date with White-Out”
- Lois Wright for 21-2-3-84(a)(5): Mailing of ballots, “when Wright failed to require a voter, Brenda Walton, to complete an affidavit after allowing that voter to vote in person while their absentee ballot was already in the mail”
- Lois Wright and absentee ballot clerk Azelia Jones for an alleged violation of an SEB Rule [read in the meeting as 183-1-12-.02-4(b)], “when she wrote the incorrect voter combination code on the voter certificate, which resulted in the voter receiving the incorrect ballot; and 21-2-384(a)(3) Mailing a ballot, when Wright failed to document absentee ballot information, i.e. ballot number and issue date, on at least 168 absentee ballot applications.”
Other allegations that investigators said were substantiated, meaning that they found sufficient evidence to indicate the allegations may be true, but that were not referred to the state attorney general, included:
- Akins-Wells being “inside the polling location [City Hall] speaking and interacting with voters” during early voting held October 14 through 18, 2019
- Wright “maintains a personal relationship with Latresa Akins-Wells” and allegedly “received gifts from Akins-Wells in return for political support”
- “Someone fraudulently submitted an absentee ballot application on behalf of Jeanette Hand, who was determined to be deceased on the date of the application.” This happened, the SEB said, when an entity “contracts with candidates to go out into the community and collect absentee ballot applications well in advance of the election. It appears that some of these applications do not have the election date entered at the time of collecting the application and have been submitted without re-contacting the voter, resulting in voters stating they did not receive the absentee ballot and, in the case of Jeanette Hand, passing away before the application being submitted after her death.” (An obituary shows Hand died July 20, 2019.)
- Akins-Wells allegedly campaigning during early voting “within 150 feet of the polling location”
- Forest Park Elections Office “miscounted the votes for the Ward 3 City Council seat, failed to read out all of the yes/no referendum questions for that ballot on the night of the November 5, 2019 election”
- “Several voters did not receive ballots with complete candidate information and one voter was not allowed to vote on Election Day”
- “Akins-Wells received a disproportionate amount of absentee ballot votes compared to other candidates on the ballot. Absentee ballot procedural errors were found on the ballots. Number or issue date for 168 absentee ballot applications.”
The following allegations were unsubstantiated by state investigators, which means investigators did not find enough evidence to show the claim was true, or that most of the evidence they found tends to show the claim was not true. (Julio had lodged several similar complaints about Akins-Wells with the Clayton County Board of Elections, while Akins-Wells pointed to security video of her walking past Martinez outside City Hall. Martinez had alleged that Akins-Wells had pushed her, which the video does not show):
- No violation substantiated: Video showing Akins-Wells and Wright allegedly “handling absentee ballots inside City Hall”
- Not substantiated: an allegation that Akins-Wells “was in possession of forged absentee ballot applications in December of 2015”
- Not substantiated: an allegation that Isabel Martinez, who is Julio’s mother, “is not a resident of Georgia and she has assisted in Julio’s campaign. She has also illegally campaigned outside of Forest Park City Hall during the early voting session.” (Julio responded February 18, “We knew that the allegations against my mother were false. We are happy to see her name cleared. We have always ensured to uphold voting rights/laws while campaigning, and we will continue to do so while we remain active community advocates in the Forest Park as well as Clayton County areas.”)
- Not substantiated: an allegation that Akins-Wells had “campaigned for reelection at City of Forest Park-funded community events, such as functions held at community parks and public schools….wearing campaign attire and handing out campaign materials and photo opportunities with voters and political figures”
- Not substantiated: an allegation that Office of the Secretary of State voter registration data for the City of Forest Park is inaccurate
- Not substantiated, but procedural errors found to violate election code: A complaint that someone had fraudulently submitted an absentee ballot application for Brenda Walton of Forest Park. “The allegation was not substantiated, but procedural errors were discovered that constituted election code violations. Lois Wright entered the date on the absentee ballot application for Brenda Walton, as she thought that was the day it came in. When Brenda Walton came to vote in person, she denied completing the absentee ballot application until she was shown the application. Brenda Walton stated that she did not write the date on the application and was told by Lois Wright that the date was an error on her part and covered the date with White-Out.”
City Attorney Mike Williams said of the first alleged violation referred against Akins-Wells, “I just think the city cannot take a position on what action the board my wish to take but, just for informational purposes, as outlined in the report, use of City Hall is the issue. Because of the small size and layout of City Hall, our concern is this is a problem that capable of potential repetition in the future, when future candidates or incumbents inadvertently and unintentionally violating this by being at City Hall on official non-election-related business. So, as a result, the city intends to cease using the City Hall as a public location for future advance voting or other election-related matters. And so, we have addressed that to the extent that it involves the city.”
On the next three alleged procedural violations, Williams said, “I think the facts speak for themselves and the city acknowledges that those mistakes were made….Ms. Wright, as well Ms. Jones, who was involved as the absentee ballot clerk, will not be serving in those capacities for future elections. The city is utilizing the city clerk’s office to perform the election superintendent role, and they are in the process of being trained. The city intends to make sure that we have a fully-trained and capable staff so that those type [inaudible] don’t occur again.”
Williams added, “Finally, with respect to the last county involving the documentation for the absentee ballot applications, et cetera, there’s a dispute as to the facts on that. We do believe that there was a log of the record, but we certainly acknowledge the concern about that, and one of the things that we intend to explore is the use of software, the ballot-track-type software that the State of Georgia is utilizing, as well as Clayton County, so that we can automate that and have a better system for managing absentee ballots going forward. So that is part of the plan and a step that the city is exploring, how we can utilize those services going forward. And then again, as to that point, Ms. Wright would not be part of that process.”
As to the remaining alleged violations, Williams said, “Because the city’s already taking steps to address those, I believe a Letter of Instruction would be suitable for those. Those individuals [Wright and Jones] won’t be part of the elections going forward.”
Trudy Smith has served as an elections observer and on the previous URA board that was dissolved (and later reconstituted with only Wright carried over to the new board) after refusing to sign off on bonds for a new combined fire/police station. She also serves on the Development Authority Board with Wright.
Smith told the SEB, “Even though the mayor vetoed allowing Lois Wright to be the elections superintendent in 2021, three councilmembers brought her back up to have her serve again. They were unable to get the fourth vote, so it did not happen, so clearly certain members of the council have condoned Ms. Wright’s actions.”
Community activist Lawanda Folami told the board, “In our last election, we had a host of complaints until I just decided to get the citizens together and call in to the state, so they could come in and investigate. There was numerous things that went on. We had at least 12 people that were, there was 119 different cases of previous elected official inside the polling place, We also have a pending case coming up on the next week that will actually escalate why this should go over to the AG for further investigation.” She said Wright was “very trained, well known of the law of the land of voting…. However, there is questioning here and now from the citizens, who actually paid for them to look at our votes and also the attorney who the citizens pay to represent the municipality….The city constituents would like to see this forwarded over to the AG, so in future the citizens will not have such problems in casting their ballots.”
SEB member Matthew Washburn moved that the City of Forest Park be issued a Letter of Instruction, “and the remainder of the case, City of Forest Park, Elections Superintendent Lois Wright, and Latresa Akins-Wells be referred to the AG. I would also add to the motion to get the other member of the board, but I also would move that this file be sent to the Public Integrity Section of the GBI to have them look at it, as well as the AG.”
There was some discussion as to whether the SEB had the authority to send the case to the GBI directly or whether that was up to the state attorney general. Ultimately, the board voted to send the case to both.
GBI spokesperson Nelly Miles confirmed that the GBI does not have a Public Integrity Section. Under state law, GBI referrals can only come from specific entities because the GBI is an assisting agency. The attorney general can start “criminal or civil actions on behalf of the State of Georgia when requested to do so by the Governor.” as well as prosecute “public corruption cases where criminal charges are filed against any person or business for illegal activity when dealing with the State of Georgia.”
Case 2019-042 City of Forest Park (Illegal Campaigning)
A voter* entered the polling place at 803 Forest Parkway and was approached by a poll worker, Edwin Martinez. The voter was handed a flyer bearing the city seal and a photo of the Gillem Logistics Center. Another copy of the flyer was posted on the wall of the polling place. The flyer contained language advocating the benefits of voting for a ballot question on whether to approve a sales tax break to fulfillment centers. The flyer noted that “The City may not advocate for or against the referendum,” yet contained no language informing voters of possible negative outcomes of voting for the measure. The recommendation was that the board refer both Martinez and former Elections Supervisor Lois Wright to the attorney general’s office for alleged violation of 21-2-4-14(a), restriction on campaign activities.
City Attorney Mike Williams told the board, “I think the facts in this case speak for themselves. Once this came to the city’s attention at the time, the instructions were given to immediately [cease and desist]. This was an informational document that was prepared to inform residents as to what the ballot question was about. It wasn’t an advocacy piece. It was never intended for this to be anywhere near the polling location, and so it was immediately put to an end. Again, for the same reasons as the prior case, to the extent that it is actually required for the city, a letter of instruction should be sufficient, since those individuals will no longer be part of elections going forward.”
Former City Manager Angela Redding said, “The city attorney covered the information that I wanted to mention regarding this case. However, I just want to make it known because it states in the findings that I as the former city manager authorized the pamphlet to be distributed and that is inaccurate.”
Williams added, “I would concur on that. At no point did any city officials authorize this.”
At the Feb. 17 hearing, the voter, Robin Kemp, told the board, “I am here in my capacity as a resident and as a voter in Forest Park. It is also the case that at the time, I was a reporter for the Clayton News-Daily covering the city of Forest Park. I just want to put that all on the table.
“I walked into the polling place at the recreation center, gym, whatever the address you guys have, and I was handed this flyer by this young man whose name I don’t know but you found. I asked him, ‘Are you supposed to be giving these out in here, because I don’t think this is legal?’ And he said he didn’t know, he was just told to give them to everybody. There was another flyer taped up on the wall to the left as you enter, and then as you walk straight in, you’re supposed to go and sign in and go through the process of checking your ID and going to vote. When I finished voting, I contacted the Secretary of State’s office to inquire as to whether or not this was legal and that I thought it was not, and hence, we’re here today.”
Kemp stated, “I also did cover this somewhat extensively for the News-Daily. I have links to those stories and excerpts if anybody would like them–you may have them in whatever packet or information you have already, I don’t know. But I just wanted to make it very clear this flyer had also been presented the night before at city council, and while the language does not exactly come right out and say, ‘You should vote for this,’ the implication is pretty clear.
“My problem with this is that it does not also inform residents and voters of what the negative or downside would be of voting for a freeport exemption. Now, I know that there’s an article in The Guardian, which, although it’s a UK publication, it does basically explain, freeports can ‘defer the point when taxes are paid,’ but the ‘tax breaks can mean a loss of revenue’ for, in this case, the city, and that ‘freeports can risk’–I’m reading from this article– ‘can risk facilitating money laundering and tax evasion, as goods are not usually subject to checks that are standard elsewhere.'”
“And that information was not provided to voters in this informational pamphlet, and it seemed that the city was distributing a very one-sided piece inside the polling place.”
Matt Washburn moved and Rebecca Sullivan seconded the motion that the case be referred to the attorney general. The motion carried unanimously.
At the November 4, 2019 City Council meeting, the night before the election, Wright said that she had authored and distributed the freeport exemption flyer. From the podium, Wright urged voters, “It’s not just for Wards 3, 4 and 5, it’s citywide. [Wards] 1 and 2, I need y’all out to come and vote on that question, that referendum, so pass it around to your neighbors.”
At press time, Wright was no longer listed on the city website as elections superintendent. However, she was listed on all three of the city’s appointed boards: as chair of the Development Authority, as well as a member of both the Downtown Development Authority and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
The URA “focuses on promoting the development of trade, commerce, industry, and employment opportunity at the Gillem Logistics Center,” which would potentially involve offering incentives–like freeport exemptions–to prospective businesses.
SEB Case No. 2020-096 (Unofficial/Unsecure Ballot Box)
A third case before the SEB involved a Riverdale voter, Doris Ann Woods, who had placed a box labeled “Ballots” with absentee ballot applications on her front porch to encourage her neighbors to vote. Clayton County Elections and Registration officials were notified of the unauthorized ballot box and went to the woman’s house to investigate. “It was determined from speaking to Ms. Woods that she was trying to get her neighbors engaged in the voting process and was handing out absentee ballot applications that could be completed and placed in the container to be picked up and delivered to the Elections Office. Once Ms. Woods was contacted, she removed the box. ” A candidate for office later picked up the applications. Investigators recommended the board send Woods a Letter of Instruction about SEB Rule 183-1-14-0.6-14, which deals with ballot dropboxes.
Board member David Worley said he was “somewhat at a loss as to how to handle this case” because “I don’t know that there’s any part of [the rule] that applies to an individual. Essentially, we allow counties to do this. I don’t think that there’s a prohibition anywhere in the statute about somebody putting together a piece of cardboard and soliciting voter registration applications that they can then turn in to the county. I’m not saying that what she did was right, or should be encouraged, or anything like that, just saying you need some specific statutory or regulatory authorization to do something about it.”
Raffensperger asked, “It says ‘ballots’ here. Were absentee ballot applications put into this box, or were actual absentee ballots? Because it is ballot harvesting. That’s covered in House Bill 316. Which is illegal.”
“There is no information pertaining to any ballots that were put in the box,” Chief Investigator Frances Watson replied. “She was handing out absentee ballot applications for people to complete and leave in the box. For her neighbors.”
Raffensperger said that the candidate who had picked up the applications to turn in had not broken the law, but added this would be “a subject for discussion” at the Gold Dome. Republican lawmakers are pushing through a number of bills that would change voting laws. Democratic lawmakers, including State Rep. Rhonda Burnough and in the Clayton County delegation, oppose those changes.
The board voted to table the case until next week’s meeting.
“We will continue to root out voting fraud and make sure anyone guilty of it faces prosecution,” Raffensperger said in his press release. “Fortunately, these individual cases aren’t large enough to change the outcome of a statewide election. Their prosecution is an example to others who may contemplate skirting the rules that protect election integrity in Georgia.”
*Ed. note on transparency: The reporter, who at the time was working for the Clayton News-Daily, was the voter who was handed, by an elections worker, city-branded campaign material on a ballot measure inside her polling place when she went to vote. She reported the incident to state election officials. By reporting the incident, she became a party to the proceedings. Because her job was to cover news in Forest Park, she later reported the story for the Clayton News-Daily. Every effort has been made to include responses from all parties in this report. The Clayton Crescent subscribes to the Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and generally accepted editorial practices. We invite reader feedback.