Downtown Kokomo

Pictured is the Howard County Courthouse on June 16, 2017. Tim Bath | Kokomo Tribune

The Howard County Election Board on Thursday voted unanimously to forward to prosecutors a possible voter fraud case involving Kokomo businessman Allen Wilson.

Wilson’s attorney, however, said following the board’s decision that he doesn’t expect the Howard County prosecutor’s office to file charges for what he calls a mistake that included no criminal motivation or intent.

Thursday’s action is the latest development in a public controversy that has cost Wilson, the owner of Competition Towing & Recovery, his city towing contract and what he believes is the loss of a reputation he spent years cultivating.

"My main concern with the referral from the Election Board to the prosecutor is just more bad press for my client and the adverse effect it may have upon his business and reputation within the community," said Wilson's attorney, Brent Dechert, in comments after the ruling.

The situation kicked off May 6, one day before Election Day, when Wilson became the focus of an email sent to the Howard County Election Board describing his “fraudulent vote” cast in the Democratic primary election.

The email alleged Wilson illegally changed his voter registration on April 2 to his business’ address, 1101 S. Apperson Way, inside city limits, in order to vote in this spring’s municipal primary election.

It is illegal in Indiana to register to vote at a place of business. Knowingly submitting a fraudulent application for registration can be charged as a crime, according to Indiana state code.

Wilson was previously registered to vote at a Howard County address outside city limits, although that registration was canceled three years ago. The address listed in the email and shown on previous registration documents is no longer owned by Wilson and was sold in 2015, according to property records.

Wilson, according to documents presented at Thursday’s hearing, has in fact lived at three separate homes inside Kokomo city limits since 2015 and thus can vote in a Kokomo municipal election. It's a point Dechert has used to claim Wilson had no reason to knowingly commit voter fraud.

But the three-member Election Board, citing the sanctity of local elections, decided Thursday to put the case in the hands of the Howard County prosecutor’s office.

The board had previously, in a meeting on Election Day, challenged Wilson’s ballot and converted it from absentee to provisional.

Board members have not revealed whether they threw out Wilson’s ballot, citing confidentiality reasons, although Thursday’s action and Wilson’s admission that his registration was improper indicates the ballot was not counted.

The author of the email alleging voter fraud, Kokomo resident Athena Sinnett, did not appear at Thursday’s hearing.

“Not making a base judgement on guilt, but I think that there’s enough here for us to determine that intent is sufficient,” said Election Board member Derick Steele during Thursday’s hearing.

“I understand Mr. Dechert’s argument regarding it’s not fraud if he could have voted … but for me as the Election Board my concern is the integrity of the election. And just because this one wouldn’t have been an issue, our concern can’t be what the ultimate outcome would have been here, but protecting the integrity of the election itself – it’s a serious enough thing I think it should be referred.”

Added Howard County Clerk Debbie Stewart: “My duty is to keep the integrity of the election intact, so I am going to vote [yes], to send it to the prosecutor’s office.”

Dechert expressed strong disagreement with the decision following the board’s ruling.

“I think that if that is enough information to be referred to the prosecutor’s office, then every complaint that comes in needs to be – every complaint needs to go to the prosecutor’s office,” he remarked, later referencing Wilson’s lack of reason to commit voter fraud.

“What’s the point? He could have registered where he lived at. How could he have had any intent to defraud someone? That’s the whole point of fraud is the intent to defraud somebody – the intent to defraud the election. And you can’t have that intent if he was a resident and could have registered at his place of where he sleeps at, which is your residence.”

Dechert emphasized that Wilson “couldn’t possibly be trying to deceive or to defraud the election.”

Documents detailing Wilson’s defense, written by Dechert, were first presented to the Kokomo Board of Public Works and Safety on May 29.  

The Board of Works had voted two weeks earlier to suspend Wilson’s company, Competition Towing & Recovery, from the city’s towing contract, citing the voter fraud allegations and related investigation.

After receiving Dechert’s argument for why Wilson’s company should not be suspended, the Board of Works announced on June 12, following an executive session, it would wait until after the Election Board’s meeting to decide whether to reinstate Competition Towing & Recovery.

The Board of Works next meets at 10 a.m. Wednesday at City Hall. A prosecutorial decision could be made by that meeting.  

On Thursday, Dechert presented similarly-worded documents defending Wilson to Election Board members and local media.

“Mr. Wilson does not deny that he was not registered to vote at his ‘residence’ as such is required by [Indiana code] and therefore he was ineligible to vote in the primary election,” he wrote.

“However, his failure to register at his ‘residence’ was merely a mistake and does not amount to fraud.”

The documents note that Wilson uses his company’s address “for almost everything,” including the address filed with the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

That arrangement, argues Dechert, also caused a situation to arise in 2016 that has been cited in conjunction with this year’s allegations.

Dechert said Wilson registered to vote in March 2016 using the Apperson Way address when he was getting an amended driver’s license at the BMV.

That year, in April 2016, the Howard County Voter Registration Office mailed Wilson a letter saying his voter registration application was rejected because “a voter may not register to vote at a place of business” and explaining what constitutes a residence.

The question of why Wilson again registered this year at the Apperson Way address following the 2016 denial and explanation has become a central component of the controversy, as well as why the Registration Office allowed his 2019 registration after denying the same request three years earlier.

Election Board members have acknowledged the Registration Office made a mistake in approving Wilson’s registration this spring; officials with the office have not commented publicly on the situation.  

Dechert claims that while Wilson, who spoke only briefly Thursday, does not deny the letter from the voter registration office was mailed to him it 2016, “he does not recall receiving or at least opening the letter.”

He goes on to note that Wilson “has not been an active participant in our local elections for some time” and that the last time he recalls voting before this spring was in the 2010 primary election for sheriff.

“Not understanding the requirement that he had to use his primary residence as his address for voter registration, he again used his business address of 1101 S. Apperson Way when he registered to vote in April of this year,” wrote Dechert.

In her email, Sinnett alleged Wilson registered to vote at the Apperson Way address inside city limits in order to vote for mayoral candidate Kevin Summers in the Democratic primary.

Property records show Wilson and Summers own a property together on Bell Street. Summers has said the two men have been friends for more than 40 years.

“A mere fact of bringing this up was an extension of his friendship with me,” said Summers on Thursday, calling Sinnett’s email “politically charged” and pointing to her support on Facebook of Abbie Smith, who defeated Summers in May’s primary election.

Dechert, in an effort to prove Wilson’s lack of motivation to commit voter fraud, has continuously noted that Wilson has been a resident of Kokomo since selling his Howard County home in December 2015.

Wilson – who Dechert says likely “pays more property taxes to the City of Kokomo than 99% of its residents” and owns nine properties – has suffered “huge financial loss” and seen his reputation ruined, claims his lawyer.

“Mr. Wilson has been a resident of the City of Kokomo for more than three years and could have validly registered to vote at one of the three residences he’s had during that time,” wrote Dechert.

“His registering to vote at his business where he directs almost all of his mail was merely a mistake and certainly does not amount to fraud.”

Dechert even went on to say that the voter fraud allegation, which he also called politically motivated, contained “a number of false, malicious and defamatory statements” about Wilson.

“Should the person (Sinnett) that brought forth these allegations continue to defame him, I would imagine that legal action will be taken.”

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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George Myers covers city and county government. He joined the Kokomo Tribune on November 18, 2014.