in Houston, Texas

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

judgesgavel.jpg
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.
Comments
Be the first to post a comment.
Video
KTRK: On Big Screens for Billionaires, Comptroller Susan Combs Silent
Related Blogs and Media
'Texas Standard' debuts on Houston Public Media News 88.7 KUHF "Texas Standard" daily news magazine, airing on Houston Public Media News 88.7 begins March 2 - will connect Texans to stories around the...
Update:10 hours 35 min
Mike McGuff
Houston media shutdown Arturo's Uptown Italiano Friday night, The Roundtable, a group of Houston journalists and political types, closed down Bill Sadler's Arturo's Uptown Italiano in...
Update:11 hours 4 min
Mike McGuff
The Playlist: The Race is On For our first University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll of 2015, we surveyed Texans’ attitudes on a variety of topics ranging from 2016...
Update:14 hours 36 min
Texas Tribune
Blue Ridge West MUD named in association with HCC campus relocation In this January 23, 2015 article titled “HCC buys land for campus in Missouri City”, the Houston Chronicle reported an unnamed...
Update:18 hours 10 min
Big Jolly Politics
Richard Chesnoff, R.I.P. Richard Z. Chesnoff, a prize winning veteran of more than 40 years of global news work and the older brother of my good friend David...
Update:19 hours 33 min
Houston's Clear Thinkers
Republican Party of Texas Chair Candidate Debate The Clear Lake Area Republicans hosted a debate between the named candidates in the race to replace retiring Republican Party of Texas...
Update:21 hours 12 min
Big Jolly Politics
DPS border 'surge' failed to reduce drug supplies, which increased Let's bottom line the effectiveness of Texas' border security measures. DPS and the National Guard aren't immigration enforcers and they...
Update:1 day 2 hours
Grits for Breakfast
Net Neutrality Supporters Fast Facts A profile of net neutrality’s biggest opponents is available here. Yesterday we profiled the top four opponents of net neutrality...
Update:1 day 16 hours
Open Secrets
Houston Home Listing Photo of the Day: It’s a Wrap 5006 Heatherglen Dr. [HAR] … Read...
Update:1 day 16 hours
Swamplot
Why Houston Commercial Real Estate Thinks It’ll Do Just Fine, Thank You Deeply embedded Houston real estate reporter Catie Dixon comes back from a panel event sponsored by her employer with a clickworthy account...
Update:1 day 16 hours
Swamplot
Tweets
Karen Townsend | 2 years 7 months
"Patrick F. Kennedy is a career foreign service officer" - http://t.co/GOrCe0IS
Peter Corbett ✈ | 2 years 7 months
I'm at McCarran International Airport (LAS) w/ @almacy http://t.co/KvmId07i
KERA Public Media | 2 years 7 months
TONIGHT at 7pm on KERA TV: Presidential Debate: Learn more at PBS NewsHour. http://t.co/Z9kYdun8
PBS MediaShift | 2 years 7 months
Tech Snafus Make Bill O'Reilly/Jon Stewart 'Rumble' More of a Stumble http://t.co/4OfeBlrG (@kegill | @pbsmediashift) #rumble2012
Will Sullivan | 2 years 7 months
Great addition, been burned too much by bad subs. "Google Play Announces Free Trials For In-App Subscription Services" http://t.co/TOLgRVak
TxDOT | 2 years 7 months
I-35W/North Tarrant Express #constantcontact http://t.co/QDzrQumu
keyetv | 2 years 7 months
Serial shotgun robbers suspects arrested. http://t.co/ka8T4U9B
Karen Townsend | 2 years 7 months
Aren't State Dept career people suppose to be non-partisan? Not the political appointees, the career people. #Libya
© 2015 TEXAS WATCHDOG and USELABS. All Rights Reserved. Terms of Use and Privacy Statement