Crime

‘I made a mistake,’ Atascadero woman who made call at polling place told videographer

Edith “Edie” Knight of Atascadero listens with defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu on Wednesday during her trial for misdemeanor electioneering at a polling place.
Edith “Edie” Knight of Atascadero listens with defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu on Wednesday during her trial for misdemeanor electioneering at a polling place. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The trial of an 86-year-old Atascadero woman allegedly caught on camera calling registered voters from a polling place during the June 7, 2016, primary election got underway Wednesday, with testimony from a handful of witnesses, including the man who took the video that launched the California Attorney General’s Office investigation.

Edith “Edie” Knight faces two misdemeanor charges of electioneering where voters may be casting votes. On Tuesday, she declined to take the California Attorney General Office’s offer to drop the charges if she admitted guilt and apologized, according to the prosecutor in the case.

If convicted, Knight, who ran successfully June 7 for a seat on the Republican Central Committee, could face up to six months in San Luis Obispo County Jail and a $1,000 fine.

The case hinges on a bystander-taken video of Knight at the Atascadero Elks Lodge, where ballots were being cast in the election.

It is illegal to conduct any campaigning or electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place.

In the video, posted to YouTube on June 16, 2016, Knight appears to be holding voter rolls and talking on her cell phone to someone she’s encouraging to vote. The video does not show her mention a particular candidate, though videographer Stephen Williams said that Knight identified herself as representing the campaign of incumbent county Supervisor Debbie Arnold.

At the time, Arnold was running in a close race for re-election against Democratic challenger Eric Michielssen. She defeated Michielssen 53 percent to 46 percent.

Williams, who testified Wednesday that he is an olive farmer in Santa Margarita, was working as a poll watcher for the Michielssen campaign. He and fellow poll watcher Charles Kleemann were tasked with monitoring voter turnout at a handful of precincts and then relaying that information back to campaign headquarters.

On his third visit of the day to the Elks Lodge, Williams said he was going through poll data when he saw Knight call someone and identify herself by saying, “I’m calling on behalf of Debbie Arnold’s campaign.”

“I was freaked out, I didn’t really know what to do,” Williams testified, adding that he decided to record the conversation on his cell phone. Shortly after doing that, Williams said Knight approached him.

“She said, ‘Please don’t do anything with that video, please don’t do anything with that video, I made a mistake,’ ” Williams said. “And then subsequently, she left.”

Pam Teagno, daughter of Edith Knight, who faces two misdemeanor counts of electioneering, discusses the toll the trial is taking on her 86-year-old mother.

Kleemann testified too, echoing Williams’ remarks.

Kleemann said he also heard Knight identify herself on the phone as calling on behalf of Arnold, but under cross-examination from Knight’s attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu he admitted, “I can’t remember exactly what she said. It was a year ago.”

Williams said he showed the video to Alvah Hicks, who was working as a polling inspector that day.

Hicks testified that he watched the video a couple of times and then asked to speak to Knight, who by that time allegedly had left. Hicks also said on the witness stand that he saw Knight, whom he did not know, speaking on the phone “on occasion,” but that he thought she might be working for the county.

“As people who are dedicated to the election process, we don’t expect this to happen. And so I was a little naive,” Hicks said.

Under cross-examination by Funke-Bilu, Hicks acknowledged that in addition to posted signs prohibiting electioneering, there also were signs preventing the use of cameras, such as the one Williams used to record Knight.

State law prohibits filming people entering or leaving a polling area for the purpose of dissuasion, but there is not a blanket ban on cameras in polling areas, Deputy Attorney General Abtin Amir countered during the trial.

According to a police report obtained by The Tribune, Atascadero Police Officer Jeffrey Wilshusen — listed as a state’s witness — took a report on June 10 from Williams about the incident. After reviewing the video, Wilshusen took the case to a detective, who spoke to Knight on the phone.

The report states that when the detective told her he was investigating an alleged elections code violation, Knight said, “Yeah, it was probably a mistake. I didn’t realize what I was doing.”

The detective forwarded the case to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office for a recommended misdemeanor filing. The DA’s Office later recused itself before the Attorney General’s Office took the case. Campaign finance reports show that Knight contributed about $800 to District Attorney Dan Dow’s 2014 campaign.

Knight, a member of the California Federation of Republican Women, has also contributed to the campaigns of supervisors Arnold, Lynn Compton and John Peschong, as well as the Lincoln Club of San Luis Obispo County.

Funke-Bilu peppered Williams with questions about his reaction that day, why he waited so long before confronting Knight if he thought she was doing something wrong, why he posted the video on YouTube on a political account after filing his police report, why he didn’t mention Knight referencing the Arnolds campaign in his preliminary police interview.

“I knew something was done that was wrong, but I didn’t know the process to handle it,” Williams said.

Dorothy Giessinger, who was in charge of the Elks Lodge polling location on June 7, 2016, testified for the defense that she did not see Knight, whom she has known for three years, on the phone at any point that day.

However, under cross-examination from Deputy AG Amir, Giessinger said it was possible she might have missed someone on the phone.

The courtroom gallery was nearly full for Wednesday’s proceedings, with many supporting Knight.

Pam Teagno, Knight’s daughter, said she flew in from Virginia to attend the trial. “I’m here because it’s just too exhausting and overwhelming for her to go through it on her own,” Teagno said before court proceedings began.

Also in attendance was San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong, who oversees county elections.

Gong said he was attending the trial “as a concerned citizen,” but that he might be able to learn something useful from the testimony to “improve our polling process.”

The trial resumes Thursday afternoon.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7929, @andrewsheeler

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

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