COATES, Minn. – Dakota County prosecutors charged 95 people Wednesday in an alleged scheme to rig elections in the small town of Coates for the benefit of a strip club that officials have long been trying to shut down.
County Attorney James Backstrom said 94 of the defendants filled out voter registration cards claiming they lived at the same address. The address turned out to be that of the club, named Jake's.
Prosecutors charged Jake's owner Richard J. Jacobson, 32, of Prescott, Wis., with conspiracy to commit forgery and conspiracy to commit unlawful voting, another felony, for allegedly orchestrating the scheme. The other 94 all were charged with forgery and conspiracy to commit forgery. All the charges are felonies.
Backstrom said he believed some of the defendants were employees at Jake's, but he thought most were customers who might have been duped into signing the registration cards.
Reached at the club, Jacobson declined to comment on the voter fraud allegations. But he said his battle has been going on for 11 years and described the situation as "a small town run amok, with a Nazi mayor and a bunch of sheep as councilmen."
Jacobson's attorney, Randall Tigue, said he had not reviewed the charges but had read a news release from Backstrom's office describing them. Based on that, he said he doubted a crime had been committed.
Tigue said that under Minnesota law, the county auditor is supposed to notify people who he or she thinks registered improperly. It's fraud only if those people then try to vote, he said.
"It only becomes a crime if you vote after you receive the notice," he said. "I think that it is real clear that no crime has been committed."
Mayor Jack Gores and two city council members face contested elections this fall in Coates, which is about 13 miles south of St. Paul. In the 2000 general election, 79 people voted in the community, which had a population of 163 in the 2000 Census.
"It's shocking to see such a blatant attempt to undermine the most fundamental pillar of our democracy -- our right to vote," Backstrom said. "... We simply don't see widespread efforts of voter fraud corruption like this anymore."
Jacobson said he knows the three challengers in the election, but they don't work for him. He said he hopes they would treat him better than the town's current leaders.
"They couldn't be any worse," he said.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank ordered Jake's closed effective Oct. 8 for violating the city's ordinance regulating sexually oriented businesses, found Jacobson in contempt of court for violating previous court orders, fined him $68,000, and ordered him to pay legal and other fees that are still being totaled up.
Jacobson said he's been closed since then and is appealing the court orders.
Backstrom said part of the evidence of a conspiracy is that 91 of the registration cards were completed between Sept. 27 and Oct. 4. Backstrom said 89 of the cards were postmarked and mailed Oct. 5, the day after the judge issued his order.
Sheriff Don Gudmundson said it was obvious as officers searched Jake's on Monday that no one lived there. He said that during the search, they recovered 39 additional voter registration cards and two completed cards that had not yet been mailed. Much of the material was found in Jacobson's car, he said.
Backstrom said the county treasurer-auditor has rejected the voter registrations.
Jacobson has been issued a summons but a court date was not immediately set, Backstrom said. Authorities were in the process of tracking down the other 94 defendants, he said.
Each count carries a maximum sentence of up to three years in prison. Backstrom said prosecutors would seek prison or jail terms for the alleged ringleaders such as Jacobson, while the other defendants would more likely face significant fines, community service and probation, depending on their involvement.
Anyone convicted of a felony in Minnesota loses the right to vote until they've completed their prison or jail sentence and their probation.
"It is ironic," said Kent Kaiser, spokesman for Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, who oversees elections.