St. Paul City Council Member and former mayoral candidate Dai Thao said he was merely helping an elderly voter at the polls last November. Prosecutors say escorting the woman into the polls and helping her mark her ballot violated election laws, and charged Thao on Tuesday with three misdemeanors.
This is the second time that Thao's actions during the mayor's race have been the subject of criminal investigation. He was exonerated in the previous allegation that he improperly sought donations from a lobbyist.
Thao said in a statement that he has done nothing wrong. Still, the political ambitions of a man who came in third place in the mayor's race in November are now overshadowed by criminal charges that only one other person has ever faced, according to the state court administrator.
Thao, 42, was charged in Ramsey County District Court with a gross misdemeanor of unlawfully marking a ballot, and petty misdemeanors of misconduct in and near polling places and unlawfully assisting a voter. To avoid a conflict of interest, Hennepin County deputies investigated and the Dakota County attorney's office charged the case.
Thao declined to comment Tuesday, referring instead to a written statement with comments from attorney Joe Dixon.
"The conduct of which Mr. Thao now stands accused is perfectly legal for virtually everyone in Minnesota," Dixon's statement said. "There is no allegation that Mr. Thao did anything intentionally wrong, or that he did anything wrong other than help one elderly woman overcome disabilities so that she could vote. The whole episode is extremely unfortunate."
The allegations surround what happened at an early voting site, the Martin Luther King Recreation Center, between 9:05 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 6, according to police.
According to the complaint: An elderly voter who didn't know English said she was outside her residence with others when a man she knew as "Mr. Xiong" approached them and asked if they needed help voting. She accepted his offer, and "Mr. Xiong" drove her to the polls.
"The voter stated Mr. Xiong informed her of each candidate's name, but did not tell her who to vote for," the charges said. "The voter stated Mr. Xiong physically helped her mark the ballot as she had difficulty seeing the circles."
The woman identified Thao as "Mr. Xiong" when shown a photo of the candidate.
Thao's side of the story matches what the woman told investigators, the criminal complaint shows.
According to the complaint, Thao allegedly told investigators that he approached a group of elders on Nov. 6 and offered to help them, drove a woman who accepted to the polling place.
"Thao stated that he then went into the voting booth with the voter and read portions of the ballot to her," the complaint said. "Thao stated that the voter indicated she had difficulty seeing and that he indicated where his name was on the ballot.
"Thao stated he then physically filled out the ballot for the voter."
The charges said an election judge who witnessed the incident reported it to Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky, who reported it to police.
In his statement Tuesday, Thao said he is "fully cooperating with investigators" although he believes the charges are unfair.
"When Ms. Yang told me she wanted to vote but had no one to take her, I drove her to the polls," he said. "When we got there and she asked for my help because no one else spoke Hmong and she couldn't see well or hold a pen, I couldn't say no."
The statement said that Thao identified himself to an election judge at the polling place.
Thao was charged via summons, meaning he will be allowed to make an appointment to turn himself into the Ramsey County jail for booking. He is scheduled to make a first appearance in the case on March 6.
Thao's future uncertain
Thao became the city's first Hmong-American council member in 2013, when he was elected to represent St. Paul's First Ward. Last September, Thao was cleared following a criminal investigation of an allegation that he attempted to solicit donations from a lobbyist in exchange for help with city business.
Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota — a DFL-aligned advocacy group that endorsed Thao for mayor and continued to support him after the bribery allegations — said his perception has not changed.
"There was an investigation into the other allegation, [and it wasn't] proven to be true. As for this situation, I can't really say a lot about it," McGrath said. "To me, if Dai's greatest sin is trying to help someone cast a ballot — there are worse things here."
Mayor Melvin Carter would not answer questions about the charges. "The Mayor's Office has the practice of not commenting on open cases," Carter's press secretary, Liz Xiong, said in an e-mail.
The absence of criminal convictions and Thao's appeal to some Hmong voters could inoculate him from greater harm, said Joseph Peschek, a Hamline University political science professor.
"He is seen as a relatively young political leader emerging from the Hmong community who had a future," Peschek said. "It's a serious matter, but it's not the type of thing that's going to lead him not to have a future in politics. At the same time, he's got to clean up his act."
Thao joined five of his fellow council members for a scheduled meeting Tuesday afternoon at City Hall. The group interviewed candidates for an interim council member position to replace outgoing Fourth Ward Council Member Russ Stark.
Thao participated throughout the meeting, asking each candidate for their opinion on the Midway development site — the location of the under-construction Minnesota United soccer stadium.
After the meeting, Thao quickly packed up his things and headed back to his council office.