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
Last minute oppo dumps in Harris DA race, y otras historias Here are several items which haven't made it into independent posts this week but which merit readers' attention:Blog vs. blog in Harris DA...
Update:1 hour 15 min
Grits for Breakfast
JCI Grill Still Keeping Heights Restaurant Under Hot Dog Surveillance; TXDOT Kills Plans for 290 Elevated Carpool and Toll Lanes Simon Premium Outlets Eying 192-Acre Texas Instrument Site on Southwest Fwy. for New Outlet Mall Called Legacy [Culturemap] Toll Brothers...
Update:1 hour 20 min
Swamplot
T-Squared: Trib, Times Will End Partnership This was supposed to be a proud and grateful acknowledgement of the anniversary of our...
Update:3 hours 50 min
Texas Tribune
Thinking Aristotle
Update:9 hours 34 min
Houston's Clear Thinkers
Strange HPD stunt: Red-light cameras make appearance in flawed “study” HPD went to City Hall this week with a strange message: Accidents are way up at intersections that used to have red-light cameras, but this...
Update:12 hours 20 min
blogHOUSTON
Greg Abbott votes, talks about the Valley and abortion Attorney General Abbott and his daughter, Audrey AUSTIN – Attorney General Greg Abbott waited in a long line to vote at a Randall’s...
Update:15 hours 59 min
San Antonio Express-News
Inside Intelligence: About Those Legislative Races... For this final survey of political and governmental insiders before the general election, we...
Update:16 hours 17 min
Texas Tribune
Arlington bond package includes $160 million to fix the worst streets, sidewalks Arlington officials hope voters will approve $160 million bond issue to rebuild bumpy streets, buckled sidewalks and congested...
Update:16 hours 48 min
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Houston Home Listing Photo of the Day: The Texas Room 424 W. 32nd St. [HAR] … Read...
Update:17 hours 4 min
Swamplot
Texans want conservatism We have nothing but evidence that Texans simply don’t want liberalism or moderate liberalism. Any attempt to blame the failure of...
Update:17 hours 40 min
AgendaWise
Tweets
Karen Townsend | 2 years 2 months
"Patrick F. Kennedy is a career foreign service officer" - http://t.co/GOrCe0IS
Peter Corbett ✈ | 2 years 2 months
I'm at McCarran International Airport (LAS) w/ @almacy http://t.co/KvmId07i
KERA Public Media | 2 years 2 months
TONIGHT at 7pm on KERA TV: Presidential Debate: Learn more at PBS NewsHour. http://t.co/Z9kYdun8
PBS MediaShift | 2 years 2 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 2 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 2 months
I-35W/North Tarrant Express #constantcontact http://t.co/QDzrQumu
keyetv | 2 years 2 months
Serial shotgun robbers suspects arrested. http://t.co/ka8T4U9B
Karen Townsend | 2 years 2 months
Aren't State Dept career people suppose to be non-partisan? Not the political appointees, the career people. #Libya
© 2014 TEXAS WATCHDOG and USELABS. All Rights Reserved. Terms of Use and Privacy Statement