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A former Democratic mayor in Arizona has been sentenced after being convicted on ballot harvesting charges connected to the 2020 election.
According to reports, Guillermina Fuentes, 66, was sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years probation on Thursday after a judge rejected her plea for leniency and just probation, saying he did not believe she has fully accepted responsibility for her actions.
Fuentes is a school board member and former mayor of the small border town of San Luis. Her case caught the attention of authorities during the August 2020 primary “and eventually led to charges against Fuentes and another San Luis woman,” The Associated Press reported. She pleaded guilty to collecting four early voting ballots in the primary.
Separately, the AP added that she “has pleaded guilty to a felony violation of Arizona’s ‘ballot harvesting’ law, which bars anyone but a person’s relative, housemate or caregiver from returning ballots for them. Her codefendant, Alma Juarez, pleaded guilty to the same charge, but it was designated as a misdemeanor after she agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.”
Assistant Attorney General Todd Lawson sought a year in prison for Fuentes, arguing before Judge Roger Nelson that the case is really about ensuring safe and fair elections under the law. Hers is the first case prosecuted under the 2016 law, which was upheld last year by the U.S. Supreme Court, the AP added.
“Nelson told Fuentes that despite a parade of character witnesses and a probation officer who wrote a pre-sentence report saying in court last week that she was remorseful, Nelson said he didn’t believe it, and then quoted from the report,” the AP noted further.
“The defendant acknowledged responsibility for carrying ballots for someone else. However, she stated, ‘I’m not a criminal,’” Nelson read. “Well, you are a criminal. You committed a criminal offense. I don’t think you recognize that as a criminal offense. That’s the problem that I have.”
The judge acknowledged the parade of character witnesses from the community who spoke in defense of Fuentes as her attorneys argued for a sentence of just probation. However, Nelson said that also weighed mightily on his decision to put her behind bars.
“Many of the things that were put forward as mitigating factors, I think they’re also aggravating factors,” he said. “You have been a leader in the San Luis community for a long time. People look up to you, people respect you, and they look to what you do.”
The AP added:
Fuentes collected the four early voting ballots from acquaintances in San Luis and gave them to co-defendant Alma Juarez while working at a table outside a polling place where she was urging people to vote for a slate of city council candidates. Juarez carried them inside and put them in a ballot drop-off bin.
A city council write-in candidate videotaped the exchange outside the polls and called the sheriff’s office. The attorney general’s election integrity unit quickly took over the investigation.
During Fuentes’ trial, prosecutors alleged in papers filed with the court that she was actually running a sophisticated operation and used her status as a figurehead in local Democratic politics “to persuade voters to let her gather and, in some cases, fill out their ballots. But they dropped more serious charges of conspiracy and forgery and both pleaded guilty to a single count of ballot abuse,” the AP added.
“It’s been an issue for a long time, or at least it’s been alleged that it’s an issue, that people vote for others, take their ballots,” Nelson said. “Everybody that’s involved in politics in this area knew that a new law was passed. You certainly knew it, that that law was new, even went up to the Supreme Court.”
As a result of her conviction, Fuentes will automatically lose her position on the local school board and can no longer serve in an elected position as long as the felony remains on her record. She can serve again if the conviction is reduced to a misdemeanor after she serves her two-year probationary period, the AP noted, adding she was ordered to report to jail on Saturday.