in Houston, Texas

Some high-profile campaigns linked to South Texans accused, convicted of illegal vote harvesting

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Thursday, Jun 03, 2010, 05:48PM CST
By Steve Miller

Vote harvesters have been successfully prosecuted for ballot fraud dozens of times in the past six years, some after serving as campaign foot soldiers to candidates for district judge, the state legislature and district attorney.

But even after being paid by these high-profile campaigns, law enforcement has not directly tied the harvesters -- often called politiqueras -- to the candidates and officeholders. For their part, the candidates  say they aren't aware of the work being done on the streets, even when their name is involved.

“It was my first run for office, and I was pretty naïve,” said candidate Freddie Jimenez, whose campaign in Nueces County for district judge employed a woman who was later convicted of illegal voting. “Then you start hearing the rumors, people talking. And you immediately should confront that person and put a stop to anything illegal.

"I learned a lot that campaign, and I didn’t even know for sure that this type of thing existed."

The association between campaign workers charged with ballot malfeasance and their candidate employers could complicate any effort to clean up voting fraud, which elections officials say plagues South Texas. District attorneys have jurisdiction for prosecution of the crimes, and judges hear the cases. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Austin get to decide whether to toughen election laws.

And the influence of politiqueras in South Texas may run deeper than Texas Watchdog's preliminary review of campaign finance reports suggests.

Campaign finance reports for local offices such as justice of the peace and mayor are housed locally, and not usually posted online, and were not part of this review. Texas Watchdog so far has only looked at campaign finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission and compared those records to a list of people charged since 2005 by the state attorney general’s office for voting-related crimes. See our methodology here.

Officeholders and candidates who have hired political workers who were later accused or convicted or voter fraud include Jimenez, the district judge candidate, as well as state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, Zaffirini opponent David Swift, retired 4th Court of Appeals Chief Justice Alma Lopezstate Rep. Tracy King and Jim Wells County District Attorney Armando G. Barrera. Organizations such as the the Nueces County Democratic Party also appear to have hired those linked to voter fraud.

King did not return calls, nor did the campaign treasurer for Judge Lopez.

Jimenez, a well-regarded Corpus Christi attorney who lost his race for a district judgeship in 2006, paid Maria Dora Flores $200 on April 5 of that year for “blockwalking and putting up signs,” according to his campaign finance report. Flores, of Nueces County, was charged shortly after, and in August 2006 pleaded guilty to two counts of illegal voting, a misdemeanor, and received two years of deferred probation and a $750 fine.

“Initially, you don’t know, and I didn’t know,” Jimenez said.

Workers like Flores are often called canvassers on campaign finance reports, where expenditures are noted. Other times the acronym “GOTV” is listed under purpose of payment, or ‘get out the vote.’ Sometimes ‘labor’ is the term used.

Barrera won his race in 2008, paying an admitted politiquera named Zaida Bueno in Jim Wells County.

“Opponents have them,” Barrera said. “I think every candidate had some.”

He said the rules were explained to the workers and that he wasn't enabling anyone to break the law.

Other candidates said they had little direct contact with the political workers who were later charged, and that they couldn't be held responsible if the politiqueras veered into illegal activity.

“There were a lot of people involved in the get-out-the-vote effort,” said David Swift, a San Antonio Republican who lost his statehouse bid in 2000 to Zaffirini.

Swift's campaign finance report shows clerical work done by Estela Saenz, who was charged by the state Attorney General’s office in December 2008 with seven counts of providing false information on a mail-in ballot application. In April, Saenz received a 12-month pretrial diversion with 80 hours of community service, according to the AG's office.

“A lot of those workers they would get from the smaller towns,” Swift said. “And I know people would come by and ask if they could get work putting up signs, and so on.

Swift explained that workers came and went during his campaign, as they do in many. “And they sometimes are only hired or brought on board for something specific, and our field coordinators handle them.”

Saenz worked for a number of state office candidates, and even ended up working for Swift's one-time opponent, Zaffirini, in fall 2008. Saenz' work for Zaffirini was listed on the Democratic senator’s finance report as “general election GOTV.”

Zaffirini called Saenz a “lovely lady” who she was happy to have working for her. And she said she didn’t believe that having a connection to someone accused or convicted of voter fraud tarnished a candidate.

“Absolutely not,” Zaffirini said. “Because I do not run my campaign. I’m the candidate. I have very limited staff and volunteers who run my campaign.”

She said she allocates a certain amount for get out the vote activities in each region of her district, then relies on “key organizers” in those areas. In Webb County, for example, her get-out-the-vote budget might be $2,000, she said.

“That money is typically used for gasoline and things like that.”

Saenz also worked for former appeals court Justice Lopez in 2000, according to finance reports, doing “get out the vote” work. She lives in Dimmit County, about 50 miles north of the Mexican border.

Saenz told Texas Watchdog that she was not guilty of the charges but declined to speak further.

Virginia Ramos Garza was paid $200 by the Nueces County Democratic Party in October 2004, noted as “contract labor.”

Eight months later, she was charged with four counts of possessing an official ballot or carrier envelope of another voter in the Robstown school district election.

Garza, who declined to comment on her charges to Texas Watchdog, was sentenced in March 2006 to one year pretrial diversion and is not allowed to campaign until she takes a course in election law, according to the AG's office.

She has not shown up on any statewide office payroll since her misdemeanor conviction.

No one in the local party could recall what Garza was doing that fall in terms of work.

But newly elected party chair Rose Harrison said candidates, especially those running for a higher office, should ensure all workers know the rules before they are allowed to work. That way, there is no chance of even a whiff of scandal.

“If these people are going to help anyone, including senators and state representatives, they need to be trained well,” Harrison said. “Many of these helpers are older people, and they don’t know all the rules. I would want to make sure anyone working for candidates knows all the rules. And that is the campaign coordinator’s job.

Contact Steve Miller at stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org or 832-303-9420.

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