Montana Secretary of State SOS
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office issued two separate press releases late last week, both containing inaccurate information about alleged election crimes in Phillips County, situated along the Hi-Line, during the 2021 municipal election there.

At 4:53 p.m. Friday, Jacobsen issued a press release announcing that two “non-citizens” in Phillips County had been “arrested and pled guilty to charges involving election crimes” during last November’s election. On Saturday morning, Jacobsen’s office released a correction noting that the two individuals had in fact pleaded not guilty at an initial appearance in Phillips County Justice Court. Montana Free Press learned Monday morning in an interview with Phillips County Sheriff Jerry Lytle that the individuals referenced in the release had not been arrested, contrary to both announcements released by Jacobsen’s office.

According to Lytle, the suspects named in both releases were cited in early January for illegally registering to vote in the November 2021 municipal election in Dodson. Lytle said both are Filipino nationals who are in the United States on exchange visitor visas and thus not eligible to vote in U.S. elections.

That information was confirmed Monday in a press release from the Phillips County Attorney’s Office. The release, sent to MTFP by Deputy County Attorney Dan O’Brien, stated that Grace O. Albia and Jannet Benitez Zeta have been charged with deceptive election practices for allegedly falsifying their voter registration forms in October 2021 by declaring they were U.S. citizens. The release went on to state that several Dodson residents notified the Phillips County Clerk and Recorder’s Office of Albia and Zeta’s citizenship after the November election, and the two were informed in December that their voter eligibility had been challenged.

“Zeta and Albia have entered not guilty pleas,” the release concluded. “An attorney has not been appointed to represent them. A trial date will be set in the future. They are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

The Phillips County press release stated as well that the clerk and recorder’s office cancelled Zeta and Albia’s voter registrations on Jan. 3, 2022.

Lytle told MTFP that his office was asked to investigate the allegation shortly after Phillips County Clerk and Recorder Lynnel LaBrie received the post-election complaints, and that the investigation determined the individuals had submitted voter registration forms despite being ineligible to vote. LaBrie declined to comment on the situation, referring an inquiry to the Phillips County Attorney’s Office. Lytle said the charges are misdemeanors, for which he believed the maximum penalty is “a fine of $585 and/or six months in jail.” He added that the two have not been detained.

“As far as I know, I think they’re just free to do whatever,” Lytle said. 

In both its releases, Jacobsen’s office claimed that the charges had been referred to Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office for prosecution. O’Brien informed MTFP via email Monday that, contrary to the secretary of state’s release, the Phillips County Attorney’s Office is prosecuting the case. Emilee Cantrell, a spokesperson for Knudsen’s office, also confirmed via email Monday that “this is the county attorney’s case.”

Last week’s releases also attributed the information about the alleged election crimes to the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office. Lytle, however, told MTFP on Monday that he has not spoken to Jacobsen or her staff about the situation, but noted that her office left a message with his staff for him on Friday. In response to questions emailed by MTFP Monday about the allegations and the press releases’ inaccuracies, Richie Melby, Jacobsen’s communications director, wrote, “we published the information based on reports our office received from the Montana Attorney General’s Office, and have updated the information based on reports we have received since.” 

Cantrell on Monday informed MTFP that Knudsen’s office “has never provided any official reports regarding [the case] to the Secretary of State’s Office,” as the attorney general is not investigating or prosecuting it. She added that an unnamed Department of Justice employee did share “what they noted was unverified information with the secretary of state’s office on Friday and recommended [the secretary of state’s office] substantiate it with the local officials who were working the case.”

Jacobsen’s press releases specifically noted that last November’s mayoral race in Dodson, where the alleged election crimes took place, was decided “by only two votes.” Records obtained from LaBrie late Monday show that her office accepted and processed ballots submitted by Zeta and Albia in Dodson’s November 2021 municipal election. 

Jacobsen’s first release included the following statement:

“Thank you to the Attorney General and all law enforcement involved for a job well done. This office is repeatedly reminded that voting violations do not exist because voting crimes are not prosecuted. As such, I will work to ensure that election law violations such as this are finally taken seriously and will continue to work to prevent them from happening in the first place.”

The corrected release Saturday added to that statement: “Our office is going to make sure they are prosecuted for these election crimes.”

Lytle said that in his 18 years with the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office, this is the first case he’s experienced involving alleged election crimes.

“This is kind of a new territory for us all, really,” he said.

MTFP will update this story as more information becomes available.

This story was updated Feb. 7, 2021 to include additional information.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...