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Prosecutor tells jury former Milwaukee official who requested fake ballots was no whistleblower

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A prosecutor urged jurors Wednesday to find a former Milwaukee elections official who requested fake absentee ballots guilty of misconduct and fraud, rejecting her argument that she was only trying to expose flaws in Wisconsin’s election system.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal said during his closing arguments in Kimberley Zapata’s trial in Milwaukee that if Zapata felt the system was vulnerable she could have told state elections officials, reporters or legislators but instead chose to go rogue and break the law.

“She is not a whistleblower. She’s not exposing information. She’s committing election fraud,” Westphal said. “As a society we cannot tolerate people who break the law when there are multiple legitimate means to raise those same concerns.”

Zapata’s attorney, Daniel Adams, said in his closing arguments that Zapata was stressed over death threats and wanted to divert election conspiracy theorists’ attention to real loopholes in hopes the harassment would stop. Her actions were “not perfect in any way,” Adams told the jury, “but the truth of what she was pointing out is there. And it remains.”

Zapata was serving as deputy director of the Milwaukee Election Commission in October 2022 when she accessed the state’s voter database from her work laptop and fabricated three names with fake Social Security numbers and requested military absentee ballots in those names, according to a criminal complaint.

She then accessed voter registration records to find state Republican Rep. Janel Brandtjen’s address and had the ballots sent to Brandtjen’s home in Menomonee Falls, according to the complaint. Zapata later told investigators she sent them to Brandtjen because she was a vocal proponent of election conspiracy theories.

Brandtjen has advocated for decertifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 win in Wisconsin and has espoused conspiracy theories supporting her position.

Zapata said in the interview she wanted to show how easily anyone can obtain a military absentee ballot.

Prosecutors charged her in November 2022 with one felony count of misconduct in public office and three misdemeanor counts of making a false statement to obtain an absentee ballot. She was fired from the election commission after her activities came to light and could face up to five years behind bars.

Adams spent the two-day trial arguing Zapata knew Brandtjen would never cast the ballots and didn’t think her actions would hurt anyone. He said Wednesday that she could have alerted the media to the military loopholes but no whistleblower is perfect.

Westphal said during his rebuttal that vulnerabilities in the election system aren’t on trial.

“The truth is Ms. Zapata lied,” he said. “People can have good motives to commit crimes. They’re still crimes.”

The case against Zapata mirrors one against Harry Wait, a Racine man who requested and received absentee ballots in the names of legislators and local officials in July. Wait also said he wanted to expose vulnerabilities in the state’s elections system. He faces up to 13 years in prison if convicted on two misdemeanor counts of election fraud and two felony counts of identity theft.

Milwaukee, home to the largest number of Democrats in Wisconsin, has been a target for complaints from former President Donald Trump and his supporters, who made unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud to attack Biden’s 2020 victory.

Heading into the state’s April 2 presidential primary, Wisconsin is once again one of a few battleground states crucial for both sides in the November presidential election.

Brandtjen faces her own legal troubles. The Wisconsin Ethics Commission last month recommended felony charges against Brandtjen and a fundraising committee for Trump, accusing them of efforts to evade campaign finance laws during an attempt to unseat GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Todd Richmond, The Associated Press

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