Like hungry alley cats sparring over a dead mouse, longtime Olympia political activist and former county commissioner candidate Jon Pettit and the lawyers for Thurston County Commissioner District 1 candidate Carolina Mejia engaged in a war of letters leading up to the Friday, Sept. 4, Thurston County Superior Court hearing to resolve Mejia’s citizenship status — and thus her eligibility to run for public office.
In the final reckoning, though, the yowling ended in barely a whimper as visiting Mason County Superior Court Judge Monty Cobb tossed Pettit’s petition as “insufficient on its face” and found Pettit had not provided “meaningful information” for the court to consider taking testimony or to move forward on his petition.
Cobb — who presided over the hearing to avoid conflict of interest because Mejia works as a judicial assistant for Thurston County Superior Court — also ordered Pettit to pay for Mejia’s attorney’s fees and other related costs.
In an Aug. 21 petition to the court, Pettit sought to contest Mejia’s placement on the 2020 general election ballot, citing evidence he had gathered that “indicates fraudulent representation of critical measures to determine citizenship either at the time of the voter’s registration and or there afterwards.”
Pettit had been demanding from Mejia — who has said she emigrated to the U.S. with her family from Honduras in the early 2000s — that she produce her naturalization certificate to prove she became a U.S. citizen on Oct. 22, 2015.
Based on information he obtained through an investigative report by Lacey-based investigations firm Cicero Intel, Pettit contended that Mejia may have committed voter fraud for two potential reasons: she is not a U.S. citizen, and/or she registered to vote before she was naturalized.
Mejia has indicated that she became an American citizen on Oct. 22, 2015, and registered to vote after the naturalization ceremony.
Furthermore, Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall has examined Mejia’s certificate of naturalization and her U.S. passport and has said she is convinced Mejia is a lawful citizen.
In his court petition, Pettit also questioned Mejia’s Social Security number, contending the number is fraudulent because of a specific configuration he said the Social Security Administration has never issued. He also cited evidence that suggested Mejia’s driver’s license/identification showed her current residence to be in Tennessee — which would expire on Oct. 6 — though he wrote that Mejia had lived in Thurston County since 2013. In addition, he questioned Mejia’s Thurston County employment, contending Mejia may not possess documentation that proves she is a licensed notary public.
He further cited a Facebook message from a local attorney supporting Mejia that indicated Mejia applied to become a U.S. citizen in 2015. Given what Pettit called the typical naturalization processing times of 18 months to two years, the application date would have made it “highly unlikely that Ms. Mejia could have been sworn in as a legal citizen prior to registering to vote and making a sworn statement as being a United States citizen at the time.”
In an email to the Nisqually Valley News following Friday’s hearing, Petit expressed mixed reactions to Cobb’s decision:
“I am disappointed that the process to bring out the ‘truth’ regarding Ms. Mejia and her citizenship or date of citizenship had not found resolve. Ms. Mejia chose not to even allow a judge to view her certificate of citizenship to verify its authenticity, but wants the public to trust her with decisions of county government. If she has nothing to hide … why not provide what any proud naturalized citizen holds as a trophy?”
The hearing’s conclusion, on the other hand, gratified Mejia, who spoke by phone with the NVN on Saturday, Sept. 5.
“We are just relieved that the case has been dismissed, and we can continue focusing on the campaign,” she said. “I wasn’t worried about the decision, but it was hard to go through that kind of stressful event.”
She’s looking forward to the next couple of weeks on the campaign trail, but knows how much effort it will require. Mejia easily won the recently certified Thurston County District No. 1 primary election with 32 percent of the vote; second-place finisher C Davis garnered 18 percent.
“I want to get back to connecting with the voters again and trying to get my message out there as much as possible,” she said. “We have our work cut out for us in the next couple of weeks, and we are just focusing on that.”
In his opening statement to Judge Cobb, Pettit remarked that he had made numerous attempts to resolve the issue “with the presentation of one document that would clear up every single issue,” referring to Mejia’s certificate of naturalization. “It’s by far the most obvious document that can be used. One could call it, easily, the birth certificate of a new citizen.”
He added that the Superior Court hearing, which was broadcast remotely via Zoom, could have been avoided “without any further action just through supplying this one document, which is the normal and ordinary source of identification for obtaining any type of significant rights.”
Mejia’s attorneys were having none of Pettit’s entreats, even before the hearing.
In a letter dated Aug. 28, Mejia’s Seattle-based lawyers — Danielle Franco-Malone and Dmitri Iglitzin of the firm Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP — wrote after acknowledging they’d received Pettit’s letter requesting Mejia’s certificate of naturalization: “We have no intention of complying with the demand and encourage you, instead, to voluntarily dismiss your meritless petition.”
Contending Mejia was naturalized on Oct. 22, 2015, the same day she registered to vote, the letter continued: “She (Mejia) does not intend to comply with demands for proof of her citizenship, demands, which frankly, can only be characterized as racist.”
The lawyers went on to write that Pettit filed the petition to challenge Mejia’s voter registration under the wrong Revised Code of Washington (RCW). The correct RCW, they cited — 29A.08.810 — “contains strict provisions designed to prevent exactly this sort of ‘birther’ attack.”
In a subsequent letter dated Aug. 31, Pettit responded: “I am in receipt of your letter of August 28, 2020, with your libelous and slanderous accusations of me being racist and your inference of claim of established factual basis relating to this cause.”
Further down, Pettit plunged into the nitty gritty of his grievance, asking the attorneys once again to produce Mejia’s certificate of naturalization “should one actually exist: “I believe it is reasonable to assume that one does not exist, if your client does not present it to find resolve in this matter without the necessity of the court.”
Back at Friday’s hearing, when it came time for him to present his case, Mejia’s lawyer Iglitzin dug in.
“I can start by saying how deeply troubled and offended I am by the nature of what Mr. Pettit is doing here,” he said. “We consider his remarks a birther attack in the vein of what was leveled against President Obama and even most recently against vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris.
“It is shocking that despite Mr. Pettit’s suggestion that he is trying to be kind here (which Pettit noted in his opening statement), that he is now impugning Ms. Mejia’s credibility regarding her employment as a judicial assistant and he has accused her of hiding.”
Iglitzin contended that no one has the right to demand other people prove their voter registration.
“In Washington state, which is not Washington D.C., we try to keep focused on legality and not baseless aspersions,” he said.
Citing Washington state law RCW 29A.68.020 — which allows registered voters to challenge elections and candidates — Iglitzin noted that of the five causes in the RCW that relate explicitly to challenging a political candidate’s eligibility for election, only No. 2 was applicable to Pettit’s challenge — and that cause related to a candidate only after he or she had been elected.
So, Iglitzin concluded, “Ms. Mejia has not yet been elected to the office for which she is running — although we expect her to be — therefore No. 2 does not apply. One, two, three, four, and five do not apply, therefore the petition is frivolous on its face.”
Cobb later disagreed with Iglitzin’s assertion that sub-section 2 did not apply to Mejia’s case, but it didn’t alter his final determination on Pettit’s petition.
In further remarks, Iglitzen — after arguing that the hearing had produced no evidence against Mejia’s voter registration or her citizenship — excoriated Pettit’s testimony.
“Mr. Pettit’s knowledge is based on double hearsay,” he said, adding that Pettit misunderstood the Facebook post referencing Mejia’s application for citizenship. “He has apparently paid someone to do an investigation which has come up with multiple levels of hearsay and nonsense … and then Mr. Pettit is accusing Ms. Mejia of not being a citizen, not being registered to vote, and not properly employed in her current job.
“But whatever it is, it is frankly garbage, and it’s not worth the attention of the court.”
He pleaded for Cobb to dismiss Pettit’s petition and invoke appropriate sanctions.
In his final rebuttal, Pettit countered: “There is no solid process in place for verification of people who register to vote. Under any standard of determination of U.S. citizenship, the item that is of the primary use is the certificate of naturalization.”
Pettit again emphasized that he was seeking to determine if Mejia had registered to vote before or after her naturalization ceremony. If she had voted before the ceremony when she had yet to become a citizen, he argued, that could be found to be a “Class C felony, of which I’ve done everything I can to try to prevent this being brought out into the court.”
He added: “If the court finds this to be true, Ms. Mejia’s life is going to be very disrupted, and I don’t wish hardship upon anyone.”
Concluding his remarks, Pettit urged Cobb to obtain Mejia’s certificate of naturalization and to clear the air once and for all.
Cobb, after listening to about 40 minutes of testimony, declared that the courts over the years have generally “not inserted themselves into the election process,” though at times by necessity have intervened. “It was the judicial officer’s responsibility to not randomly and willy-nilly stick their fingers into the election process.”
That said, Cobb agreed with Pettit that his petition was not a voter registration challenge. If it had been, he added, “Mr. Pettit would be completely off base and not have followed any of the procedures required by 29.A.08.810” — which outlines the bases for challenging a voter’s registration. “But he is not using that statute, so those very specific procedures don’t apply.”
Pettit had, instead, filed his petition citing other state statutes which detail the parameters for preventing and correcting ballot frauds and errors.
“So,” Cobb said, “it really boils down to the question: Is Ms. Mejia eligible to be a county commissioner?”
He then outlined how one might answer that question: Is she a qualified voter, and is she a citizen — both of which he affirmed.
Toward the end of the 50-minute hearing, Cobb contested Pettit’s assertion that Mejia merely submitted her naturalization application in 2015 and that, in fact, the 2015 date may have referred to Mejia’s pending application.
“So I agree with Mr. Iglitzen that Mr. Pettit you are reading that statement probably incorrectly,” he said.
In one of his final statements, Cobb noted that Pettit had attempted a “burden-shifting action” and had not provided meaningful information for the court to move forward on his petition.
He pointed explicitly to the 1973 Washington Supreme Court Case LaVergne v. Boysen, which stipulated that an “elector must allege sufficient details of erroneous or wrongful actions or inactions that the court may make a meaningful consideration of them.”
And with that, Cobb dismissed the case, noting it final and not subject to appeal.