- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - A Mexican man accused in an identity theft scheme in which authorities say he legally changed a U.S. citizen’s name to his own would likely still be able to circumvent tough new Kansas voting laws because he had the proper documents.

Ramon Perez-Rivera, 81, entered a not guilty plea Wednesday in federal court in Wichita after being charged in a 33-count indictment that includes charges of assuming a false identity to obtain food stamps and Medicaid, obtain a U.S. passport and driver’s license, and register to vote.

In a bizarre twist, prosecutors allege that Perez-Rivera was able to convince a California court to unwittingly change the legal name of the U.S. citizen whose identity he had assumed to his own real name. Armed with that court order, he also changed the man’s California birth record to his own name, according to the indictment.

Perez-Rivera registered to vote in Sedgwick County in 1999, and an online check by The Associated Press of voting records indicates he voted at least once, in the 2000 general election. His voter registration remains active despite the federal charges that include voter registration fraud.

The Kansas law that took effect in January requires new voter registrants to provide a birth certificate, passport or other document proving their U.S. citizenship. As of Wednesday, more than 25,000 voter registrations were suspended because they had not provided the necessary paperwork, according to the Kansas Secretary of State’s office.

While Perez-Rivera did not have to prove his citizenship because he was already registered, he still would have likely fooled the state even under the strict requirements now in effect because he would have had the needed paperwork. Election officials said Wednesday they were unaware of the federal indictment until contacted by The Associated Press.

State law prohibits election officials from cancelling an active voter registration without a request from the voter, unless the voter moves outside of the county where he is registered, dies or is convicted of a felony, said Sandra Gritz, Sedgwick County’s chief deputy election commissioner. The only other way to remove the name would be by a court order, she said.

The indictment unsealed Tuesday charges Perez-Rivera along with his wife, Antonia Vargas-Ortega, a naturalized U.S. citizen. The couple’s 47-year-old daughter, Antonia Perez-Vargas, was indicted separately on charges accusing her of obtaining her U.S. citizenship by falsely claiming the identity theft victim was her stepfather. All the defendants live in Wichita.

The wife’s attorney, Kurt Kerns, said in an email that there is no evidence she was aware of any issues her husband may have had.

“Antonia is a sweet, loving 82-year old-grandmother who’s been swept up into something of which she has no knowledge or involvement,” Kerns wrote.

Attorneys representing Perez-Rivera and his daughter declined to comment after the arraignments.

All three were released on unsecured bonds after entering pleas of not guilty, the only plea a federal magistrate judge can accept at this point in the proceedings.

U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said the couple left his office “no choice” but to pursue an indictment.

“Two years ago, we decided not to pursue charges in this case due the age and circumstances of the defendants,” Grissom said in a statement. “But they allegedly continued to engage in the same conduct that brought them to the attention of law enforcement officers in the first place.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson, who is prosecuting the case, said outside the courthouse that the couple had been warned, and the decision to prosecute them was made because they refused to stop trying to get taxpayer benefits.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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