Troubling questions in Milwaukee’s latest election scandal

Empower Wisconsin | Nov. 5, 2022

By M.D. Kittle 

MADISON — As Milwaukee’s No. 2 elections official faces charges in the city’s latest election scandal, the lawmaker she targeted is asking a critical question: Why would Kimberly Zapata risk her job, her excellent benefits, her freedom, when she could have just stepped forward with her concerns?

The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office on Friday charged Zapata with a felony count of misconduct in office and three misdemeanor counts of making a false statement to obtain an absentee ballot. 

The charges come a day after Mayor Cavalier Johnson announced at a hastily called press conference that Zapata had been fired as deputy administrator of the Milwaukee Election Commission after she allegedly requested three absentee ballots meant for military members and had them sent to state Rep Janel Brandtjen’s home. 

Zapata faces a total of five years in prison and up to $13,000 in fines if found guilty of the charges. 

Her story, according to the criminal complaint, is that “she sent the ballots in the names of three fictitious military voters to make a point about the existence of fraud in the voting system — though she said this was not the same situation as people who are involved in conspiracy theories,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. 

Zapata told investigators she was only trying to get Brandtjen’s attention, and redirect her focus from “outrageous conspiracy theories and to something that is actually real.” 

Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) chairs the Assembly committee that has investigated election integrity complaints for the better part of two years. She immediately informed authorities about the fraudulently obtained ballots sent to her home, and says she does not know Zapata. 

Brandtjen is skeptical of the deputy elections chief’s explanation. 

“It this clerk wanted my attention, why would she risk her job, her comfortable pension, her reputation, and going to jail when she could have just picked up the phone and called me to have a private conversation?” Brandtjen asked. “We (the committee) could have exposed this problem just as easily without putting her career and freedom at risk.” 

It’s a good question, and one the Journal Sentinel and others don’t appear to be asking. But then again the Journal Sentinel has been too busy painting as conspiracy theorists Brandtjen and anyone who has raised election integrity questions over the last couple of years. And Brandtjen said that, as of Friday, Journal Sentinel had yet to reach out to her. 

In the complaint, Zapata said her alleged actions were different than those of Harry Wait of Racine County-based citizen action group H.O.T. (Honest,Open, Transparent) Government). Wait is facing two counts of election fraud and two counts of unauthorized use of an individual’s personal identifying information after he’s accused of using Wisconsin’s state election website to request absentee ballots be sent to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Racine Mayor Cory Mason. 

Wait, too, says, he was trying to alert the public to the integrity flaws in Wisconsin’s absentee ballot system. 

Wait’s case is different in one important aspect. Zapata has been an elections official for seven years, and second in command at the scandal-plagued Milwaukee Election Commission since this summer. She knows the laws well, and has access to the system. And a review found she did use the elections system, according to reports. 

Zapata also stated that she “felt overwhelmed because of  threats of violence the Election Commission was receiving, in addition to the constant daily harassment and accusations of lying and hiding things.”

The complaint, however, states she didn’t step forward until after Brandtjen reported the matter to authorities and until her boss, Election Commission Administrator Claire Woodall-Vogg, confronted her about it — a second time. 

As the newspaper reported:

The complaint states that Zapata went on the MyVote website from her home about 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 25 to create the fake voters, submitting three applications under three different names at randomly chosen addresses in Shorewood, South Milwaukee and Menomonee Falls.

She used her city-issued laptop for the applications and found Brandtjen’s address in the state voter registration database that is administered by the Wisconsin Elections Commission and is only available to municipal employees. The site can only be accessed using a government-issued device and requires a username, password, PIN and thumbprint verification, the complaint states.

The only authorized use of the site is for official election work.

Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg told investigators that on Monday she had sent Zapata an article about the military ballots being sent to Brandtjen and Zapata denied knowing what it was about. When Woodall-Vogg sent another message with a statement from Brandtjen about the ease of receiving military ballots, Zapata responded, “She has a point,” the compliant states.

Then, on Tuesday, Zapata approached Woodall-Vogg and said she had created the fake voters and sent the ballots to Brandtjen to show how easy it is to commit fraud in this manner.

Brandtjen has without question been a thorn in the side of the Milwaukee Election Commission, Woodall-Vogg in particular. Her office has made voluminous open records requests with the city in the course of her committee’s investigation.  

On Thursday, Brandtjen told Empower Wisconsin she believes a “subpoena is in order” to obtain records surrounding Zapata’s activities. Milwaukee, following the advice of Gov. Tony Evers to “lawyer up,” stonewalled a previous subpoena in the now-defunct investigation by special counsel Michael Gableman. 

Late Friday, Wisconsin veterans and voters filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Attorneys for voting integrity law firm, the Thomas More Society, filed documents asking the Waukesha County Circuit Court to issue a temporary restraining order and temporary injunction, ordering the state’s elections officials to sequester all military absentee or mail-in ballots prior to the election. 

Thomas More Society attorney Erick Kaardal said his clients want to verify that the ballots are authentic and not fraudulent like the three military absentee ballots sent to Brandtjen’s home. The action was taken on behalf of Concerned Veterans of Waukesha County and several named voters, including Brandtjen.

“This is the latest in a host of complaints filed against the Wisconsin Election Commission,” said Kaardal, who is working alongside former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, now senior counsel with the Thomas More Society. Gableman led the now-defunct special counsel probe into the 2020 elections. 

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