Ardent Trump supporter on trial for voter fraud testifies he’s probably a U.S. citizen

Hiram Enrique Velez is certain of several things.

His name is Hiram Velez, and he’s a Republican and staunch supporter of President Donald Trump.

“Yes, I signed up to vote and I voted,” Velez testified Wednesday in the third day of his federal trial on voter fraud charges. “I’m a Republican and I voted for Donald Trump, too.

“I’ve always voted for my Republican Party.”

In fact, Velez has voted in elections dating back two decades, and that is a problem for the U.S. government, which says Velez is not a citizen and is not actually Hiram Velez.

Instead, prosecutors say the Sacramento man actually is a Mexican citizen named Gustavo Araujo Lerma, who assumed the identity of a Puerto Rican-born man named Hiram Velez when he bought a birth certificate and Social Security card for $200 in Chicago in 1992.

For nearly three hours Wednesday in federal court in Sacramento, the defendant testified that he is an American citizen, that he doesn’t know this Lerma fellow and that he never lied on his applications for U.S. passports or when he signed polling place voter rolls.

“I’ve always been an honest person,” the defendant said testified under question from Assistant Federal Defender Douglas Beevers, insisting that because he received official identification documents in Illinois he is, in fact, Velez.

“I felt Puerto Rican because the secretary of state of Illinois erased Hiram Velez and put me in his place,” the defendant added, noting that his identity bracelet from the Sacramento County Jail also calls him Velez.

In fact, jail records list him under the name Hiram Velez, although if you type in “Gustavo Lerma” in the online inmate locator site it takes you to the Velez page.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine Lydon was having none of it when she got her crack at him Wednesday morning before U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez.

“You lie under oath,” Lydon said to the defendant as he rejected that claim. “You’ve lied under oath scores of times to get the documents in this trial, haven’t you?”

The government contends the defendant was born in Mexico in 1955, married his wife there and had children, then moved to the United States, assumed the phony identity, then re-married his wife and won resident status for her and the children.

The defendant, who spoke Spanish through an interpreter and constantly had to be admonished to stick to Spanish when he lapsed into answering in English, presented a tangled series of claims during his testimony.

An auto mechanic who says he never went to school, he testified that his earliest memory is from when he was 5 and found on the streets of San Antonio by a woman who turned him over to an acquaintance known as Pedro Garza to raise him.

He never knew his parents, he said, and ran away from Garza when he was 12, ending up living on the street for years as he moved from Dallas to Houston to Little Rock, Ark., to Chicago.

As evidence of his identity, the defense produced tax documents he filed in the name of Velez, as well as his Hollywood video store card and a series of cards from the Republican National Committee with his name that he proudly carried in his wallet.

“I sent in a little bit of help, a little bit of money and they sent me the cards,” he said. “I liked to be someone who supported Trump because I hoped he was going to be someone who fought against terrorism.”

In fact, his support of the RNC led to Trump’s campaign and those of top Republican leaders sending him letters of thanks.

He claimed he never lied filling out passport applications and voter registration forms because Illinois officials had given him documents saying he was born in Puerto Rico on Sept. 16, 1956, and that was good enough for him.

“I do not know my birthday,” he said. “I don’t remember. I don’t know where I was born or what date. I don’t know.”

But, he insisted, he absolutely is Hiram Velez.

“I never had a doubt about being Hiram Enrique Velez,” he testified. “I even bought a plot under that name, in the graveyard I bought one.”

Under grilling from Lydon, the defendant resembled a sweet, older man, smiling and insisting that she was wrong about him.

“You have no reason to believe you’re an American citizen, do you?” she asked.

“I could have been born in the United States,” he answered, noting that Garza told him he’d been born in Brownsville, Texas, and his identity papers said he was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.

But, he said, he never believed his parents were from Mexico, and that the woman who found him as a boy indicated they had been drug dealers or drug addicts. A Mexican couple would never have left a child behind, he said.

“I don’t think it was anyone from Mexico because we don’t do that,” the defendant said.

The jury began deliberations late Wednesday on the charges of aggravated identity theft, voting by an alien and making a false statement on a passport application.

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Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.