Foreign nationals charged with illegal voting mostly got small fines

U.S. Attorneys Office in Raleigh announces plea deal in one of the last outstanding cases from 2018 crackdown.

Posted Updated
Election Day, polling places
Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — A Mexican woman arrested last year on fraud and illegal voting charges got a $975 fine Monday, seemingly wrapping up one of the last outstanding cases from a series of 2018 arrests netting foreign nationals who voted in the 2016 elections.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina announced the plea bargain Monday with 28-year-old Patricia Franco-Rodriguez. The news release made no mention of the other 18 cases that U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon's office prosecuted over the last year against foreign nationals, but federal court records show most of those cases ended with dismissed charges and/or fines of $50 to $600.

Two ended with federal prison sentences of 14 days and a month, respectively.

When the arrests were announced in August 2018, Higdon's office said the maximum penalties for most of the charges involved spanned between one and six years in prison with six-figure fines. The charges Franco-Rodriguez faced, which included visa fraud as well as voting by an alien, could have gotten her 26 years, Higdon's office said at the time.

Asked Monday for a rundown of how all 19 cases ended, an office spokesman said that would have to be compiled. WRAL News pulled the results from PACER, the online repository for federal court records.

The Washington Post broke down several of these cases in February, reporting that defendants were given minimal sentences and that cases were delayed because the court had to bring in interpreters in Japanese, Creole, Tagalog and Spanish.

The defendants, nearly all of them legal U.S. residents, came from more than a dozen countries, including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Nigeria, the Philippines, Guyana, Japan, Korea and Germany. Several defendants told The Post they didn't know that they couldn't vote and that they were urged to do so by campaign workers or election volunteers who didn't know it was against the law.

The attorney listed for Franco-Rodriguez, and attorneys for a handful of the others arrested in these cases, didn't immediately return telephone messages seeking comment Monday afternoon.

Higdon's office said Monday that its "investigation as to voter fraud is ongoing," but it didn't provide details. His office, along with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, subpoenaed every county in the Eastern District shortly after these arrests, demanding years of voting records. Some of the same investigators involved in the foreign nationals case were listed on that subpoena.

The subpoena has since been scaled back, and the State Board of Elections said in February it would turn over data on 789 North Carolina voters. Details are scarce beyond that, and WRAL, along with a coalition of other outlets, including The Washington Post, sued to get more information after repeated information requests went unfilled.

Higdon's August 2018 announcement on the 19 arrests also included information on a 20th arrest but said that it came "separately." Ramon Esteban Paez-Jerez had already pleaded guilty to passport fraud and voting by an alien at the time, the release said, but was awaiting sentencing. The maximum penalty was 11 years imprisonment and a $350,000 fine, the release said.

He got one year and a day in prison and a $5,500 fine, according to his online case file.


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