An hour-long meeting Tuesday between representatives of the Harris County Democratic and Republican parties, the Harris County District Attorney's office and the County Attorney's office was fairly unremarkable. It was a place for the two political parties, who are twisted in an acrimonious battle of lawsuits not between each other but by groups tightly connected to the right and the left, to discuss allegations of intimidation at the early voting locations.
The state Democratic Party says that Republicans are using a group called the King Street Patriots to recruit poll watchers, who are in turn intimidating mostly Democratic and minority voters. Democrats have come to the defense of Houston Votes, a left-leaning group accused of voter registration fraud.
But among the mediators of the meeting was Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, who has accepted and given donations to groups tightly connected to the Democratic side.
In April 2009, Ryan donated $1,000 to Houston Votes for its voter registration effort. Houston Votes was accused in August of numerous voting violations by Harris County Voter Registrar Leo Vasquez, including falsification of government documents. (See the Texas Watchdog story here.)
And in March, Ryan donated another $100 to the Texans Together Education Fund for a luncheon ticket, and has given other similarly sized donations to Texans Together over the past few years, records show.
Ryan's first assistant, Terry O'Rourke, said the donations presented no conflict.
"Take a look at the size and the timing of that. There's nothing unlawful," he said.
Earlier this month, Ryan's office punted a public records request from a King Street Patriots volunteer to the attorney general, who will decide whether certain voter applications and volunteer deputy applications should be released. The AG's decision, called an open records letter ruling, would likely come after the election.
Ryan told the folks gathered in his office Tuesday that he would send investigators to take statements from "various people in the early voting stations where the trouble had occurred," according to Harris County Democratic Chairman Gerry Birnberg.
County officials found no proof of trouble
“We processed 26,031 votes, we had 14 complaints, all from Democrats, of intimidation,” DeLeon said. "We had no complaints on Tuesday or [Wednesday]."
Representatives from his office went to each site of a complaint, spoke with officials there and found nothing to uphold any allegation of trouble, he said.
Still, Ryan called for a monitor from the U.S. Department of Justice, although reports that the DOJ was looking into any particular group – including declarations that some tea party members were involved in the intimidation accusations -- were incorrect.
DOJ: No investigation into any specific political organization, tea party
“The department is looking into allegations of misconduct in polling places that occurred in Harris County during the first day of early voting,” DOJ spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said via e-mail. “There is no investigation into any specific political organization, including the tea party, at this time regarding this matter.”
Birnberg, the Democratic party chair, insists there was intimidation and that it has continued.
"The complaints the clerk's office deals with are different from the complaints we are receiving," he said. "We get the documented stories of intimidation, from credible sources. One was on the board of trustees at Houston Community College. One worked for a Texas senator."
The fracas, which involves investigations, lawsuits, ethics complaints and allegations of intimidation and improper activity at polling sites, stems from Vasquez' assertion in August that Houston Votes had turned in thousands of faulty voter registrations. The lame-duck Republican compared the work of Houston Votes to that of the much-maligned ACORN in a press conference.
The King Street Patriots is a conservative group that has taken up squelching voter fraud as a key issue, through its True the Vote arm. It provided Vasquez research of its findings before that press conference.
It’s too early for the King Street Patriots to file a tax form 990, which would shed light on the scope of its operation.
Claims, finger-pointing between political parties common in Houston, across U.S. around Election Day
But the maelstrom that has engulfed the Rosenberg-based political operation has moved the group from tea party niche status into the bulls-eye of Democrats and progressives.
Shortly after Vasquez announced the voter fraud investigation, state Dems responded by suing him.
The Patriots skated on that legal action, but this week the Texas Democratic Party amended an existing lawsuit against the Green Party to include the group.
"We're not interested in political gamesmanship," said Catherine Engelbrecht, who leads King Street Patriots. "We're interested in free and fair elections. We're doing nothing more and nothing less than any citizen has the right to do."
Houston Votes has not returned calls over the past several weeks.
Late last week, Texans for Public Justice, a liberal Austin-based group that focuses on corporate abuses of the political system, filed a complaint against the King Street Patriots with the Texas Ethics Commission.
The election next month has galvanized legions of special interest groups as well as the Democratic and Republican parties. Polls hint at large Republican gains in all levels of government, ginning up actions that traditionally provide as much news as the election itself.
In 2008, Wisconsin voters were allegedly targeted by Republicans with pre-printed absentee ballots that, if not mailed, would potentially thwart that voter’s in-person ballot.
An investigation into race-related intimidation in Florida by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found no evidence of voter intimidation but instead blamed flawed technology for possible miscounts.
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo of a polling place sign by flickr user momboleum, used via a Creative Commons license.
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