Gessler voter sting nets 1 conviction despite accusation of widespread fraud

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AURORA | An Arapahoe County judge last month sentenced an Aurora man to probation for falsely registering to vote — marking the lone conviction in a 2013 voter fraud investigation that identified more than 100 suspects.

Vitaliy B. Grabchenko, 49, pleaded guilty to procuring false registration, a misdemeanor, on Feb. 24. Arapahoe County Judge Addison Adams gave Grabchenko a two-year deferred sentence and ordered him to complete 48 hours of community service. He will also be on supervised probation for two years.

Grabchenko, a Polish national, was one of four people charged in 2013 as part of a large-scale and controversial voter fraud investigation launched by former Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler.

Gessler had identified more than 100 people he said illegally voted, but the four charged in Arapahoe County were the only people in Colorado to face charges.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler later dropped charges against two of the defendants. A fourth man, Carl Blocker, was supposed to go on trial last fall on voter fraud charges but he failed to appear in court and remains a fugitive, said Michelle Yi, a spokeswoman for Brauchler.

In the case of Tadesse Degefa, 73, of Aurora, prosecutors a week before the trial asked a judge to drop the false registration charge and the judge dismissed the case the day it was supposed to start.

In a statement, prosecutors said Degefa asked for a ballot in the mail for the 2012 election even though he wasn’t a citizen and couldn’t legally vote. But, prosecutors said, because the law makes it easy for a third party to ask for a ballot for someone else, they couldn’t prove it was actually Degefa who asked for the ballot.

“The existing safeguards are insufficient to prevent this from happening again, and are inadequate for us to prosecute cases with these facts. We honor the law and our elections processes in this state and in this specific case. Here, justice was best served by dismissing the charge,” Brauchler said in a statement at the time.

Prosecutors said Degefa illegally voted in 2008 and 2009, but the statute of limitations in those cases had expired.

The cases were among more than 100 statewide identified by Gessler, who said he pursued suspected fraud after extensive research in hopes of highlighting irregular election problems. Relatively few of the suspected cases have warranted charges, and critics have accused Gessler of a partisan ploy, picking on legal  immigrants.

Arapahoe County prosecutors announced charges against Degefa and three others in November 2013 and said they were the result of a four-month investigation by six staffers working more than 300 hours investigating 41 suspects.

Of those 41 voters, prosecutors found more than half were eligible voters.

Degefa and Grabchenko, were accused of illegally voting. Blocker and Michael Michaelis worked for a nonprofit called Work For Progress, and prosecutors said the men registered voters who were not eligible to cast a ballot in Colorado. Prosecutors in June dropped charges against Michaelis after they said there were questions involving some evidence in the case.

When the charges came down in 2013, a spokesman for Gessler said the two voter fraud cases in Arapahoe County were the only people from Gessler’s list of 155 possible ineligible voters who will face charges. But, he said, there is evidence that more people from that list voted illegally, but local prosecutors opted not to charge them with a crime.