86-year-old found guilty of electioneering at Atascadero polling place

Edith Knight's daughter discusses electioneering trial's toll on her mother

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.
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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.

Edith “Edie” Knight was found guilty of misdemeanor electioneering at a polling place and fined $500 in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court on Monday afternoon.

“I just didn’t think I was guilty, and I still don’t,” said Knight, 86, outside the courtroom after the verdict was read.

Jurors took about 30 minutes to decide whether she was the target of “political assassination,” as her attorney contended, or whether she’s “another elected official who doesn’t want to admit she broke the law,” as the California Attorney General’s Office claimed.

Knight, an elected member of the Republican Central Committee, was charged with two misdemeanors alleging she was illegally electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place during the June 7, 2016, primary election. Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen last week dismissed one of the charges for lack of evidence.

Knight Verdict044
Edith Knight shakes the hand of Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen after her trial for misdemeanor electioneering where she was found guilty and fined $500. Joe Johnston

After the verdict, defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu questioned the state’s motivation, noting that Attorney General Xavier Becerra is “a well-known Democrat” who wouldn’t have pursued the case if Knight were not Republican.

“I think it’s a political statement, but the power of the state is huge and you have to deal with it,” Funke-Bilu said after the verdict was read. “This case never would have (gone forward) if Edie Knight had made the call and said she was a registered Democrat.”

Knight could have been sentenced to up to six months in jail.

Deputy Attorney General Abtin Amir said the state was not seeking jail time, but noted during sentencing arguments that the defendant “showed no remorse or regret” and that her legal expenses were supported by the public, with at least $12,000 donated.

“I don’t think you would want me to consider that. It would be inappropriate,” said Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen, before he ordered her to pay the maximum fine of $500.

The case was sparked by a cell phone video taken in the Atascadero Elks Lodge lobby and later posted to YouTube by Stephen Williams of Atascadero, who was working as a poll watcher on behalf of the campaign for county supervisor candidate Eric Michielssen. In the video, Knight is seen holding a list of registered voters as she speaks to an unidentified person, whom she is encouraging to vote.

Williams and another witness testified last week that Knight identified herself on the phone as calling on behalf of the campaign to re-elect county supervisor Debbie Arnold.

Knight denies that she mentioned Arnold during the call and testified last week that she made between 30 and 40 other calls from the lodge before being confronted by Williams. Knight claims she was simply “getting out the vote.”

Williams reported the incident to Atascadero police three days later. When a detective interviewed Knight, Knight admitted that she made a “mistake,” according to a police report.

However, on the stand, Knight said she was tired and not thinking clearly when she made the phone calls, and that she did not have significant training as a poll watcher. She also testified that she didn’t think making phone calls counted as electioneering.

The trial has attracted roughly 100 supporters of Knight, who has been politically active in San Luis Obispo County for more than 30 years. The Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the case due to a conflict with the District Attorney’s Office, previously offered to dismiss the charges and any fines if Knight agreed to admit guilt and apologize. She declined.

During closing arguments Monday afternoon, Amir told jurors that it didn’t matter whether Knight knew what she was doing was a crime, but that she willfully called people from the polling place. He said her actions and admissions to Williams and the police after the incident showed that she knew she broke the law.

“Nobody is trying to say this is the biggest crime ever, but it is a crime, a violation of an important election law,” Amir said, calling Knight “another elected official who doesn’t want to admit she broke the law.”

Amir pointed out that Knight was using an Arnold campaign cell phone in the video and that her personal cell phone is seen on a table.

In his closing, defense attorney Funke-Bilu told jurors that the case was purely political and that there was no physical evidence that Knight identified herself as from the Arnold campaign.

“Today is the day the political assassination of this woman stops,” Funke-Bilu said. “Today is the day you ask the State of California, ‘Have you no decency? Have you no shame?”

He added: “It’s not like she’s committing a murder.”

After the verdict was read, he questioned how much money the state had spent on the trial.

Amir has denied the accusation that the case was “a waste of taxpayer money.”

“We did everything we possibly could to prevent this from going to trial while still making it clear our election laws matter and that we will fight to defend them for the People of California,” Amir said.