in Houston, Texas

South Texas DA, AG’s office clash on approach to voter fraud cases

Monday, Aug 16, 2010, 04:58PM CST
By Steve Miller

McALLEN, Texas – Gloria Barajas has an automatic security gate and a chain link fence surrounding her small frame house. “No trespassing” is her wish, conveyed via a red and black sign.

In the community here, Barajas is a known and esteemed politiquera, who can deliver voters to the polls, hand out literature and sometimes help elderly voters cast their mail-in ballots.

Done correctly, none of her activities are illegal.

Done incorrectly, and she is committing voter fraud.

Charges against Barajas and seven others implicated in a 2005 vote-harvesting scheme for a mayoral campaign have been dropped. But the tale of how their case fell apart turns on the view of some officials that election laws aimed at deterring fraud can't be enforced -- and the local DA's position that some activities banned in election law shouldn't be illegal. The voter fraud that plagues the region has driven elections administrators here to push for changes in state law.

“I’m not worried about you getting caught with two or three ballots,” says René Guerra, the Hidalgo County district attorney who dropped charges on all of them after vowing to clean up elections in the troubled county. “And a politiquero or politiquera is a consultant.”

Texas Watchdog could not reach Barajas. Another woman implicated in the 2005 case, Elvira Rios, declined to comment.

The names of those accused never showed up on campaign finance reports for that election. Some in the community say they are merely volunteers, working for no pay. Others, though, are convinced that the politiquera system has enriched some residents for years.
Troubled elections office

In the wild precincts of South Texas, there is law. Hidalgo County, with 741,000 residents, is a bustling area of commerce and growth, and sophistication is evident everywhere. Sushi restaurants, bookstores, cafes, live music venues – it is a livable part of the state that could make a visitor forget Dallas or Houston.

But political undoings of epic proportions are run-of-the-mill here, where one can hear whispers of judges on the take and shady suicides, FBI agents posing as street sweepers and state officials who wire informants in vote-buying stings.

A former elections administrator, Teresa Navarro, took a plea deal at the end of last year on charges related to corruption. That came nine years after her predecessor, Noe Garza, resigned amidst charges of voting irregularities.
Hidalgo County has seen 13 separate investigations of elections procedures in Hidalgo County between 2002 and 2008, or an average of two per year.

The Valley has a “Body Heat” vibe, where the benign climate and sweeping breezes belie endemic corruption.

“I was told at one point by an elections investigator with the attorney general’s office, ‘We’re never going to clean up the Valley, it’s a mess,’” recalled Karol Montes, part of a citizen contingent in Hidalgo County that aims to eradicate the illegal work of vote harvesters, or politiqueras. “I said, ‘Look, you take our tax money and then we are treated like your bastard kids. We need help.’”

How the case unfolded

Following a May 2005 mayoral election in McAllen, Texas Rangers investigators began to look into voter fraud allegations that came from Montes, among others.

The team working the case interviewed Maria Reyes, an 82-year-old woman who said in an affidavit that a woman named Carmen Castillo had called on her a month before the election. Elderly voters are most often the targets of potentially illegal voting activity, since they often vote by mail.

Reyes told Ranger Israel Pacheco that Castillo “came by her house to help her vote,” according to the statement introduced in court as evidence. “Reyes said that she was told who to vote for, that she only signed her ballot. Reyes said that Castillo took her ballot.”

In November of that year, DA Guerra asked the office of state Attorney General Greg Abbott to assist the Texas Rangers in its investigation. The AG responded with help, but after five days, Guerra told the investigators their help was no longer needed, according to both parties.

In December 2005, a grand jury handed up 43 counts of voting-related charges in connection with the mayoral election.
The indicted women allegedly told voters how to vote, failed to sign forms attesting to witnessing votes, and mishandling ballots.

Castillo’s was let go because of insufficient evidence.

In April, the final case was dropped by Guerra’s office.
Page 2Guerra says politics didn't enter into his decision to drop the cases, but he acknowledges that those charged probably all helped him campaign. 
Photo of a gavel by flickr user Joe Gratz, used via a Creative Commons license.
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