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Police, prosecutor, county clerk named in suit by Dubois woman prosecuted in '16 for vote

Jul 16, 2017 - By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Harley Wells was first person in Fremont County to ever be prosecuted for felonious voter fraud.

The Dubois woman claims the case last year was about more than just voting. She has filed a lawsuit trying to prove it.

Wells says her unprecedented case was a vendetta from local officials -- including police, the prosecutor and Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese -- all of whom Wells says held a personal grudge against her.

The original case came to an end last July when Wells pleaded no contest to the lesser charge of misdemeanor interference with the orderly conduct of an election.

Special prosecutor Marcia Bean dropped the three felony charges on the eve of trial.

"I'm not sure we would have gotten a felony conviction," she said at the time.

Instead, Wells was sentenced to six months unsupervised probation in lieu of jail time. As part of a plea deal, "low misdemeanors" weren't considered a violation of probation.

Despite multiple felony convictions, Wells registered and voted in the 2014 general election.

Freese, who serves as the county's chief elections officer, has previously told The Ranger that she's long turned over evidence of voter fraud to law enforcement and the Fremont County Attorney's Office, but typically had little interest in prosecuting such cases, she said.

In recent years, Freese said, both Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Murray and the Wyoming Legislature's Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee have pushed for a full investigation of instances of false voting.

Fremont County's low population, especially in Dubois and other small towns, means each instance of voter fraud is particularly significant, Freese said.

"I don't have enough fingers on my two hands to count the number of elections I've administered that don't end in an automatic recount due to the slim margins between candidates," she said. "Every vote counts."

Connections

The county's low population also filled Wells's prosecution with an unusual web of personal interconnections.

When the case was being investigated in 2015, Wells had been in a "close-intimate relationship" with now-deceased local attorney David Hooper.

Hooper had proposed marriage to Wells as soon as his "contentious" divorce proceedings with Kathy Hooper (maiden name Freese) ended.

According to Wells's attorney, Cynthia Van Vleet, "Kathy Hooper suffered emotionally" from the divorce proceedings and had become "a scorned woman with family in positions of power."

Kathy Hooper's sister-in-law is Julie Freese, and Kathy Hooper's son is Brady Patrick, the detective for the Division of Criminal Investigation who investigated the case.

"Brady Patrick wrote a letter to David Hooper admitting he had run a (National Crime Information Center) report on Harley Wells, where he detailed his disdain for Mr. Hooper's attitude toward his mother," Van Vleet said.

Even special prosecutor Marcia Bean had a personal connection to the case, Van Vleet said.

Special prosecutors are appointed by the Fremont County Attorney's Office when that office has a conflict of interest -- even if only perceived.

Van Vleet said in the claim that Bean "had a personal relationship with Kathy Hooper through their love of dogs and Kathy Hooper's participation in P.A.W.S." the Riverton-based animal shelter and adoption program.

Van Vleet said the investigation and prosecution of Wells also was a breach of basic procedure.

"In the past, the Fremont County Clerk would send out a letter to a misinformed voter and put them on notice that they could not legally vote in the State of Wyoming. The cost was the price of a stamp," Van Vleet said, adding the investigation by Freese constituted "an abuse of power."

"But for the Hooper-Freese family connection, this case would never have been prosecuted," Van Vleet said.

After the lawsuit was filed, Freese told The Ranger that the "case was handled no differently than any similar case that has come to my attention."

"Ms. Wells has never produced proof that her voting rights have been restored in this or any other jurisdiction," she said. "I make no decisions about whether the case gets prosecuted, that is left up to the prosecutor handling the case."

Along with Patrick, Freese and Bean, the lawsuit's fourth defendant is DCI detective Kenneth Gassen, who Van Vleet said had filed an affidavit in support of a warrant for Wells's arrest despite knowing the numerous conflicts of interest.

"It was all fruit of the poisonous tree and tainted and not discovered as a result of an independent, untainted source," Van Vleet said. "As a result of the charges, Harley Wells spent time in jail, which constitutes a seizure and a violation of her liberty interests."

Demands

Van Vleet is arguing the defendants' actions violate "Section 1983," a federal law that bans malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth Amendment, Fifth Amendment, and Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process.

"As a result of the charges brought against Harley Wells, she suffered damage to her reputation, lost wages and was required to expend substantial amounts of money on attorneys' fees and costs, among other costs," Van Vleet said.

Wells is demanding punitive damages, attorney fees and compensatory damages for "emotional distress, loss of reputation, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life, and other pain and suffering on all claims allowed by law in an amount to be determined at trial."

While defending Wells last April, attorney Robert Stepans had asked the court to dismiss the case, described Wyoming's false voting law as an "untested statute that's fairly new."

He contended the law requires the prosecution to prove Wells was definitely aware she was not a qualified elector at the time of voting.

The law, enacted in 2012, states that false voting entails "voting, or offering to vote, with the knowledge of not being a qualified elector entitled to vote at the election."

The phrase "with the knowledge" is highly unusual in Wyoming law, and Stepans argued that the strong language, "written in a different form than almost every other statute," indicates that "the Legislature was not intending to criminalize someone who thought they were OK to vote."

That argument would have asked the jury to determine whether the law was merely a "general intent" rule that would not require Wells to know whether her action was unlawful.

Stepans said he believed his argument is a substantial question of the Legislature's intent, not a "philosophical dalliance" intended to free his client on a technicality.

Wells, whose felony convictions came from Nevada, asserts that she fully believed she was able to vote in Wyoming. Nevada law states that a felon's civil rights are fully restored when the convict is honorably discharged from parole.

When Wells was discharged from parole, she received a letter that said she was "honorably discharged from parole without restoration of civil rights," which Stepans said is a contradictory statement trumped by Nevada's law on honorable discharges.

Since Wells's prosecution, a second man, Steven Putra, was prosecuted last year for voter fraud without receiving a felony conviction. Freese said she's turned over a number of other cases of false voting to the attorney's office.
 

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