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Some voters take issue with vulnerable adults

BRAINERD (AP) -- On a warm day in Washington state, two days after Jim Stene's 12th birthday, he faced a decision that would alter his life forever.

And eventually place him at the center of a 2010 voting fraud allegation regarding vulnerable adults.

On June 28, 1987, Jim and his two sisters walked along a sandbar in a mountain river that was making its way to Puget Sound.

The fast-moving river was deep in places. When Jim's sister Heather fell off the sandbar, Jim made the split-second decision.

"He paddled out and saved her, got her back and he didn't make it back," their father Al Stene said.

Al Stene said as a volunteer firefighter he was first on the scene. His son was in about 12 feet of water and was pulled out after some 20 minutes. Stene said his son was in a coma for about six weeks and there was a grim outlook.

When his father recounted the story last spring at their residence near Merrifield, Jim cried quietly while seated at the other end of the table.

After 13 months in the hospital, Jim continued slowly to progress. Eventually he was able to leave a wheelchair, get off a feeding tube and go back to school. But his life was forever changed from the outlook for the boy in the family photo wearing hockey skates and poised with stick in hand.

Stene said the family looked at what Jim could do and not what was no longer possible for him. But Stene said the family didn't expect Jim would drive a car, get married or vote.

Last year, as a 35-year-old vulnerable adult, Jim lived in the Clark Lake Home in Brainerd and voted in the 2010 election via absentee ballot on Oct. 29 in the Crow Wing County historic courthouse along with other group home residents.

Monty Jensen, Crow Wing Township resident, who was also in the courthouse at that time, said he was concerned by what he saw as voter fraud.

On Nov. 1, Jensen filed a complaint with Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan's office.

In his affidavit, Jensen said he witnessed what appeared to be staff members from a group home filling out a client's ballot and verbally instructing a client who to vote for during absentee balloting.

In March, Ryan said what Jensen observed was somewhat substantiated but he didn't have evidence of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. It is legal for people in guardianship status to vote in Minnesota and be assisted if needed.

Lynn Peterson, owner of Clark Lake Home, did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

On April 26, Al Stene testified before the House of Representative's Civil Law Committee along with Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who authored a bill this spring regarding changes to voter eligibility requirements, including those directed at people placed in guardianships.

The allegations of voter fraud were taken by some as a partisan issue. Stene has maintained that is not his focus.

"My agenda has always been Jim," Stene said.

Stene said he first learned his son voted when a former neighbor, Ron Kaus, a Minnesota Freedom Council member, found Jim's name in voting records he was gathering regarding the alleged voter fraud issue. Stene said he was livid as his son's voting never came up during the semi-annual review of his activities that fall.

In December, Ryan reported his office did not find evidence to substantiate Jensen's claim of voter fraud. In December, Ryan said an investigation was continuing into allegations of exploitation of a vulnerable adult.

Ryan said that investigation has been active since that time.

A grand jury will be convened in Crow Wing County.

Ryan did not say what that grand jury is being called to consider. Jensen and Stene said they were subpoenaed to testify.

"I will not comment on what information that will be presented to the grand jury because it's inappropriate for me to do so," Ryan said, adding if the information is connected to a criminal investigation it is inappropriate for him or law enforcement to comment on it and he was concerned with citizens going out and conducting their own investigation and leaking the information.

"That's not how criminal investigations should be conducted," Ryan said.

Stene said he is relieved to be able to tell his story and his concern is with vulnerable people who are exploitable and need more oversight. "These people are really at risk."