For years, President Trump has claimed that millions of noncitizens voted in the 2016 presidential election, unfairly skewing his vote as Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College.
On Monday in federal court in Sacramento, a man accused of coming to the United States from Mexico and voting illegally in elections for the past 20 years went on trial on charges of aggravated identity theft, voting by an alien and making a false statement on a passport application.
But there’s a twist.
Gustavo Araujo Lerma is an avowed Trump supporter, and evidence expected to be introduced in his trial includes letters of thanks from Trump, former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and current RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel.
A June 2, 2017, letter from Trump to the defendant assures him that the president and Vice President Mike Pence “are deeply grateful for your resolve to help us make American safer, stronger and more prosperous than ever before.”
The letter was addressed to Hiram Enrique Velez – the name of a deceased American citizen whose identity Lerma allegedly assumed years ago to win legal status for his wife and their two children, who were all born in Mexico, according to prosecutors.
“The evidence will show that the defendant was born in Mexico in 1955, married a woman named Maria Manriquez in 1982, and had two children with her in Mexico in the 1980s,” according to a trial brief filed by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Katherine Lydon and Shea Kenny. “By the early 1990s, he began living in the United States, fraudulently using the identity of a Puerto Rican-born United States citizen named Hiram Velez.”
Lerma, a 64-year-old Sacramento resident, was indicted in 2017 by a federal grand jury and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
The government says evidence it will use against Lerma includes a letter he mailed from jail to Hiram Velez’ mother “requesting her help in his upcoming trial” and saying he bought a birth certificate and Social Security number for Velez while living in Chicago.
Prosecutors plan to offer up a Sacramento County elections official as a witness and say Lerma went to the polls in five elections and signed in as “Hiram Velez.”
Assistant Federal Defender Doug Beevers argues that his client, whom he refers to as “Velez,” was entitled to use the name and cannot be found guilty unless the government “proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew that his name was not Hiram Enrique Velez.”
“Mr. Velez contends that he was entitled to use the name Hiram Enrique Velez because under California common law a person may change his name at any time without initiating legal proceedings,” Beevers wrote.
“Defendant has taken the position that he has adopted the name Hiram Enrique Velez for all purposes and will introduce the testimony of family members including his children who know him only as Hiram Enrique Velez,” Beevers wrote. “Defense counsel intends to state his appearance as counsel for the defendant ‘Hiram Enrique Velez’ whom the government claims is Gustavo Araujo-Lerma.”
The trial before U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez is expected to last through the week.