in Houston, Texas
Feds probe drug task force in south Texas
Thursday, Dec 13, 2012, 12:59PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
handcuffs

The police officer sons of two south Texas law enforcement chiefs who made fighting corruption the cornerstones of their careers have been taken into custody on suspicion of waylaying drug caches coming across the border from Mexico.

Federal agents investigating several border departments west and south of McAllen arrested Jonathan Treviño, the son of  Lupe Treviño, sheriff of Hidalgo County, and Alexis Espinoza, the son of Rodolfo Espinoza, Hidalgo’s police chief, the McAllen Monitor is reporting.

Agents took another pair of officers they didn’t identify into federal custody, and at least three more arrest warrants were outstanding. Sources told the newspaper two Hidalgo County Sheriff’s narcotics deputies are among those named in the warrants.

Warrants and related documents had not been filed by late Wednesday in U.S. District Court in McAllen. Federal investigators declined to discuss the investigation with the newspaper.

The probe, however, centers on something called the Panama Unit, a joint drug task force made up of Hidalgo County and Mission officers. Treviño and Espinoza are members of the unit.

“It’s just going to get real, real nasty, real, real quick,” an anonymous local investigator told the paper.

Sources told the paper the combination of authority and the absence of supervision had a way of making the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics disappear, particularly for Treviño, who “has gone unsupervised since the get-go.”

“With all the problems he’s had,” the source said, “they should have kicked Jonathan out years ago.”

“Everybody knew that kid was dirty,” another investigator told the paper. “It was just a matter of making a case.

Voters in Hidalgo County in November gave Treviño’s father a landslide third-term victory. Since his election in 2004 Treviño has promised to get on top of corruption in the county and secure the border.

In October, Mission hired Espinoza away from the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department. A captain, Espinoza taught law enforcement ethics to deputies and headed special units for the department.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Hidalgo County water district - flagged by auditors for spending that exceeded revenues - approves staff pay raises
Wednesday, Aug 08, 2012, 09:54AM CST
By Steve Miller
money

At first blush, a South Texas water district’s 10 percent raise to employees who haven’t seen such a thing since 2003 is an ‘it’s about time’ prospect.

When the entity giving out the raise was found in a state audit released three months ago to have spent more than it took in since at least 2008, the raises for 10 employees become more significant, even though the estimated cost will be a paltry $25,000.

The audit of the Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3 was a scathing review that alleged the district paid more than $106,000 to companies with links to District 3 President and General Manager Othal E. Brand Jr. The district operates without a conflict-of-interest policy. Brand recused himself in votes involving his business interests, according to a report in the McAllen Monitor.

The raises will be covered by a 33 percent increase in water rates, which was approved in July on the heels of the audit and its allegations.

At the time the increase was approved, Brand said it would raise about $300,000 and cited the audit as the spur for the higher rates.  In addition to the pay increase, the district hopes to hire two more administrators, Brand said.

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

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Texas Watchdog article cited in Texas voter ID case against Attorney General Eric Holder
Wednesday, Jun 06, 2012, 11:10AM CST
By Steve Miller
signs

The state of Texas has introduced a Texas Watchdog article on voter fraud into its voter ID case against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The article, along with several others, is part of a response to a motion to compel filed by the defendant, which asks the court to compel production of documents by the state.

In a footnote on the Watchdog piece, the state writes:

Politiqueros, campaign workers who assist voters in filling out mail-in ballots and sometimes mail the ballot for the voter, play a controversial
role in south Texas elections.  See, e.g., Steve Miller, Politiquero Tradition Shapes Elections in South Texas, Texas Watchdog, Apr. 7, 2010 (Ex. 5).  Representative Aliseda has also acknowledged that he has not prosecuted in person voter impersonation cases. See Adryana Boyne, Interview with Rep. Jose Aliseda of the Hispanic Republican Conference, Texas GOP Vote, Apr. 29, 2011 (Ex. 6).

The lawsuit was filed after the Obama administration blocked implementation of the voter ID bill, which was passed in the statehouse last session.

In 2010 we delivered a series of articles on voter fraud in South Texas, which centered on mail-in ballots. Texas Watchdog documented, step-by-step, the process used to commit the fraud, in which paid vote harvesters coach voters to select certain candidates or collect ballots, then alter them.

We also wrote about how voter ID was more of a political issue from Washington, a Republican rallying cry rather than a practical solution to the very real problem of voter fraud in Texas.

During the state legislative session in Texas in 2009, “voter ID became code language,” Aaron Peña, a South Texas lawmaker told Texas Watchdog. “It was a Washington-driven plan. Not to demean the effort, but it did not come to fruition here in Texas."

Peña last session introduced a number of measures aimed at inhibiting vote harvesting, which went nowhere as the voter ID bill passed.

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

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Creative Commons License
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South Texas water district’s spending practices, fiscal oversight lacking, auditors find
Friday, Jun 01, 2012, 01:57PM CST
By Steve Miller
tap

A state audit of a water district in South Texas, which was the subject of legislative scrutiny last year, reports poor fiscal oversight and lax spending discipline.

The Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3 has spent more than it has taken in since at least 2008, according to the Texas State Auditor’s Office report.

Auditors found the district had  “significant weaknesses in the management of its finances and operations.”

It found that assets including land, water rights and easements were sold to cover for revenue deficits, but “it cannot continue to sustain itself through the sale of assets.”

The audit also found fault with the district’s collection procedures, maintenance documentation, and discovered that “the individual who is both the District’s general manager and the president of its board has multiple businesses that provided services to the District in fiscal years 2008 through 2011” without a process to ensure compliance with state laws regulating such arrangements.

Pay for the board members of the district increased 76 percent in 2011, and the audit found no documentation to verify the hours worked in exchange for that pay, a violation of the Texas Water Code.

District employees and board members who handled cash were not bonded, another violation of the code.

The district provides water to the city of McAllen and a number of other entities and individuals.

In its response to the audit, the district claimed that proponents of dissolution of the utility made “politically charged allegations” and pointed out that previous claims by its detractors of missing funds were not sustained by the audit.

The district also maintained that the sale of assets were not made to cover shortfalls and instead relied on an “interim operating loan,” which it repaid.

It cited a number of deficiencies named in the audit that have been corrected, including the money handling, director compensation documentation and conflict of interest concerns.

The audit was prompted by a 2011 bill, SB 978, which would have dissolved the district and authorized the city of McAllen to take over its management. A number of McAllen residents and city leaders testified in favor of the bill and despite a favorable analysis of the bill by the Senate Resource Center, Gov, Rick Perry vetoed the bill, instead ordering the audit.

The city of McAllen has unsuccessfully tried to take control of its water since 2007 through legislation.

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

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Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Harlingen police release policy on chases after initially refusing to disclose the public information
Wednesday, Apr 13, 2011, 03:40PM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal
police lights

Under pressure from the Valley Morning Star, the Harlingen Police Department has released its policy on pursuits.

The department had initially refused to release the public information, requested by the newspaper after a Harlingen woman was killed in a crash following a police pursuit of a suspect last month.

The newspaper surveyed area police agencies’ policies on when to engage in a high-speed chase after the March 24 incident, and while many agencies including the state Department of Public Safety were forthcoming with their policies, others were not. One agency’s excuse was that releasing the information could give criminals the upper hand.
Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio said information regarding his department’s pursuit policy is not exactly public information. He said that if he released the full details of the policy, criminals might use the information to evade arrest.
The city of Harlingen released their department’s policy to the newspaper Tuesday, almost three weeks after the fatal crash. The city attorney told the Morning Star that she needed time to review the document before releasing it and is anticipating a lawsuit in connection with the incident. The pressure was upped after a weekend police chase that “resulted in a car crashing through the wall of a San Benito apartment occupied by a pregnant woman and her 6-year-old daughter asleep in bed.”
 
***
Contact Lee Ann O’Neal at 713-980-9777 or leeann@texaswatchdog.org.

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Texas Watchdog examines voter fraud in South Texas; fraud is rampant, seldom prosecuted
Wednesday, Dec 29, 2010, 08:30AM CST
By Steve Miller
voting by mail

DEL RIO, Texas - In a courtroom here, Dora Gonzalez confessed.

 

She had intentionally hampered the voting process by mishandling more than 100 absentee ballots in the March 2 Democratic primary in Val Verde County. By 29 votes, her employer, County Commissioner Jesus Ortiz, had won the primary, effectively handing him re-election in this Democratic county. Challenger Gus Flores alleged voter fraud and sued.

 

A judge ruled in August that Gonzalez' activity on Ortiz' behalf was illegal and ordered a new primary. Under close scrutiny, the election was won by Flores with a 306-vote margin.

 

In many ways, the case is typical of voter fraud in South Texas: Many violators are not charged -- Gonzalez wasn't either --- because prosecutors complain the cases are hard to prove. When they are prosecuted, the penalties are so small they don't deter the crime. So, with payment as "get out the vote" workers for candidates, the vote harvesters continue to hijack absentee ballots by sending applications on behalf of voters, arriving on their doorstep as the ballots arrive and coaching their votes.

 

"It's almost like it's OK because it's always been done," said Rudy Montalvo, election administrator in Starr County, which hugs the Mexican border just northwest of McAllen. He's done battle with his own Dora Gonzalezes, to little avail.

 

"We've had four people indicted, and all of them got a plea bargain. And that's probation, usually," he said. "In the end, the hammer's not hard enough."

Gonzalez testified that she worked the March primary for a number of local candidates, as well as Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, Texas state Sen. Carlos Uresti and gubernatorial candidate Bill White. Since politiqueras' activity is marshaled through local party players, it is unlikely that anyone on White or Uresti's level would ever know of their work.

Gonzalez told the court that Ortiz had given her a stack of applications for mail-in ballots for potential voters and 100 stamps.

 

Many of those voters said in depositions that Gonzalez took their completed ballots. Most said that Gonzalez did not attempt to influence their votes, but others did. "She filled them out so I could sign, and then she took the envelope," one voter said.

 

And Gonzalez' reason for assisting these candidates and voters?

 

"Because I'm interested in my community, and I'm interested in having good people help the community," Gonzalez replied, according to an account in the Del Rio News Herald.

 

LITTLE ATTENTION FROM AUSTIN

Florence ShapiroSHAPIRO

Shortly after Texas Watchdog began its series of stories on voter fraud in March, state Sen. Florence Shapiro said in an interview, “I will be filing legislation to deal with this.”

Now, with bills being pre-filed and the session’s January start just weeks away, Shapiro is vague as to just what can be done.

 

“We’ve talked a lot about it through another senator who wanted to do something about it,” Shapiro said, although she couldn’t recall the other senator’s name. “And other people in the senate are looking at filing some of these bills.”

 

But she declined to be specific or even support what she vowed to do earlier this year. It’s been the way of voter fraud in Texas, particularly in South Texas.

 

“In Austin, anyone from San Antonio and above thinks that this is the Wild West, so why pay attention,” said state Rep. Aaron Peña, whose District 40 takes in a large swath of the region. “They look back over 300 years of history, and they see that now they’re still doing the same thing with voting in South Texas.”

 

Steve WolensWOLENS
Voter fraud has been over the years inadvertently abetted by malaise or disinterest at the state lawmaker level. In some cases like Gonzalez', politiqueras have been linked to prominent state officeholders and candidates.

The most recent statewide effort to address mail-in ballot fraud, a 2003 bill by former Democratic state Rep. Steve Wolens, enhanced penalties for certain activities regarding mail-in ballots. 

“The first thing that happened when I put the bill out there is that people came out saying it would disenfranchise voters, like the elderly and the disabled,” Wolens said. “And my response was, ‘Poppycock. This is aimed at the illegal harvesting of voters by paid opportunists who were themselves disenfranchising the elderly and the disabled.'”

 

In 2005, Robert Talton, a staunch conservative Republican state representative from Pasadena, moved to one-up Wolens. His House bill would have barred anyone from assisting more than one voter in an election, with some provisional caveats for close family. The bill died in committee.

 

ELECTIONS CHIEFS FRUSTRATED

 

But the practice of vote harvesting has never relented. State law regarding the mail-in ballot is fairly simple: If a person is mailing in a ballot, as Gonzalez did, that person must sign the ballot.

 

"A person other than the voter who deposits the carrier envelope in the mail or with a common or contract carrier must provide the person's signature, printed name, and residence address on the reverse side of the envelope," the law says.

 

The rule for signing a ballot for someone else - the signer is called a witness - is also explicit:

 

"The witness must state on the document or paper the name, in printed form, of the person who cannot sign. ... The witness must affix the witness's own signature to the document or paper and state the witness's own name, in printed form, near the signature. The witness must also state the witness's residence address unless the witness is an election officer, in which case the witness must state the witness's official title."


Vote harvesters, who can assist voters legally, are entitled to as many ballots as they need or want, and can even request them at the Secretary of State’s website.

 

“They get the mail-in ballot, then the fraud comes in,” said Pam Hill, election administrator in San Patricio County. She’s been in office since January 2006, and the practice has grown since that time, she said.

 

The number of mail-in ballots cast varies wildly, depending on the contest, she said. "It could be 1,500 mail in ballots, or 100."

 

Hill and other election administrators from South Texas have been meeting informally for the past couple years to talk about voter fraud issues unique to the region. They hope to get support from lawmakers, but so far the group has had little luck. And to make things worse, two elected officials who attended a small conference with the election officials in Kingsville in August, Solomon Ortiz, Jr., and Abel Herrero, lost their re-election bids in November.

 

“We just aren’t sure what to do now,” said Roy Ruiz, election administrator in Kenedy County.

 

A legislative election committee report is due out at the start of the year and contains nothing about addressing mail-in ballot fraud, according to the committee's office. It will, though, contain plenty about the need for a voter ID measure that has failed in previous sessions. Several Republican lawmakers prefiled voter ID measures last month.

 

DA: CASES HARD TO PROSECUTE

 

In the politiquera world, they are legends: names like Elvira Rios, Gloria Barajas, Cynthia Lopez, Dora Gonzalez and Zaida Bueno. For years, they have been known as the go-to people for South Texas candidates.These mostly female vote harvesters work the apartment complexes, the nursing homes and any other living areas for the elderly and disabled. The compensation varies, from a deal that gives them perhaps $1 per ballot to a wider-ranging proposal that could pay hundreds of dollars for supervising a team of politiqueras.

 

They are helping, most say, enabling a person to exercise his or her constitutional right to vote. Some like Gonzalez say they are volunteers and make no money, and are only in it for the good of the community. Others are documented as paid in campaign finance reports, sometimes by local district attorneys and judges -- the same officials who are responsible for determining if the vote-harvesting has crossed over into illegal activity.

 

Rene Guerra, district attorney in Hidalgo County, saw a grand jury hand up 43 counts of voter fraud on a number of individuals -- some who he admits may have helped him win elections -- in a massive 2005 case presented by the Texas Rangers. As the years went by, he dropped all but one of the cases. Nothing there, he said.

In a county that is legendary for its politiquera activity, Guerra said he has never been able to prove voter fraud.

“It’s almost impossible to prove that,” Guerra said. “If I pay you $10 or a hamburger to vote for Obama or Bush, and you go vote, how do you prove it?"

The witnesses to the crime don't help, either.

 

"As some dementia sets into the elderly block of voters they’re prone to contradict themselves in statements. It will be the killing shot for prosecution," he said.


'A FAIR ELECTION. FINALLY.'


The state Attorney General’s office has proclaimed war on people like those vote harvesters, though the office can only act when its assistance is requested by a local law enforcement agency. 

 

Still, the AG this year successfully wrapped up 10 cases of voter-related issues, including mail-in ballot fraud, and filed nine more cases that have not yet been heard. Bueno, who explained how voter fraud works in a Texas Watchdog story this year, pleaded guilty in June to one count of mishandling mail-in ballots along with two others in Jim Wells County. All those convicted received the same punishment: a year of probation, a 180-day suspended jail sentence, a $200 fine and 40 hours of community work.

 

Few ever get jail time, even with confessions.

“Nothing happens,” said Lucy Lopez, an alderman in Taft, Texas. “And so people get to the point where, why even say anything about it?”

Gus Flores, the county commissioner who pushed his case in Val Verde County, said the only way for him to disrupt the entrenched voter fraud system was to take it into a courtroom. It cost him tens of thousands of dollars, he said. “But that election was stolen from me, and we had to prove it."

Even the local Democratic party was against him, Flores said, and together with League of United Latin American Citizens tried to prevent the do-over election, saying the date of Sept. 25 did not allow adequate time for voter participation.

 

Diana Salgado, chair of the local Democratic party, said the judge's verdict enabling a new election "was a poor decision. ... There's much more to this story than was presented." She did not return a follow-up call.

 

“It never mattered,” Flores said. “They knew the election was wrong, but it’s the way its been done here for many years. And it reaches all the way to the top, the top officials.

 

“But in the end, we had a fair election. Finally."

 

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


Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feed in your newsreader. We're also onMySpaceDiggFriendFeed, NewsVine and tumblr.

 

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, we'd love to hear about it. E-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

 

Photo of someone voting by mail by flickr user droob, used via a Creative Commons license.

Did you hear the one about the voter registered 'behind the tree'? South Texas elections chiefs detail voting irregularities to state reps
Tuesday, Aug 17, 2010, 09:27PM CST
By Steve Miller
tree

KINGSVILLE, Texas - Two state lawmakers will consider filing bills related to voting issues presented to them by a group of South Texas elections administrators Tuesday. State Reps. Solomon Ortiz Jr. and Ryan Guillen heard tales of mail-in ballot fraud, illegal immigrants using voter registration cards as a form of identification, and the difficult task of keeping voter’s residences current.

“I had no idea things were this bad,” Ortiz said at the end of a two-hour meeting in which he and Guillen joined six elections administrators.

 

Ortiz and Guillen's interest gives hope to the elections chiefs, who say they have complained of elections irregularities and outright fraud for years with little response from Austin.

 

Yvonne Ramon, elections administrator in Hidalgo County, told of sending a voter registration card which bore the address of “behind the tree” near a specific address, while Roy Ruiz, elections administrator in Kenedy County, sent one to the address of “half mile from the post office.”

 

Another administrator, Rudy Montalvo from Starr County, said he has found duplicates and worse, sometimes errors that would allow voters to get six or seven ballots for an election.

 

"I called the (Secretary of State) to ask what to do when one voter appeared to have six different locations, and they said, 'You have to mail the ballots,'" Montalvo said. He said calls to the attorney general's office and the Texas Ethics Commission were fruitless, despite his feeling that illegal voting would occur if he followed the law.

 

“And I have 13 people registered to a one-bedroom, one-bathroom house,” added Ruiz.

 

Voter residency laws in Texas make residency a state of mind, a sometimes creative leap that ends up in court.

 

Ramon asked for legislation that would allow matching 911 residence records with voter rolls.

 

“Right now, all we can do is send cards to the voter when we notice a difference between 911 and our information,” Ramon said. “We aren’t allowed to change the records. But we’d like to be able to as long as the addresses are in the same precinct.”

 

The murky residency laws play into the use of voter registration cards being used as IDs for purposes other than voting and the ability of illegal immigrants to vote, the officials said. Why not allow elections administrators to use the same criteria for issuing a voter ID as for a driver’s license, that is, require three forms of identification? 

 

Ramon said undocumented immigrants can get a voter registration card, which they can use to get a driver’s license before obtaining citizenship.

 

“There is a system they can work to get a driver’s license, and we are part of it by law,” she said.

 

The mail-in ballot process is also a mess, the elections officials agreed, from giving out batches of hundreds of mail-in ballot applications to individuals to illegal activity in nursing homes by politiqueras, or vote harvesters.

 

One official told of 800 mail-in ballots returned with the same postage meter stamp on them. Others agreed that mail-in ballot fraud was rampant and went unchecked because no one had the resources.

 

“I went to fraud class when the AG’s office held it,” Montalvo said. “And I finally got them to come down and help me with the mail-in ballot fraud. They got eight indictments. I was all excited. And then it ended up with three months probation and a $500 fine for each of them.”

 

“Same in Jim Wells County,” said Pearlie Jo Valadez, that county’s elections chief.

 

Ortiz acknowledged there was voter fraud in South Texas and at one point asked the officials, “Would you be in favor of tougher penalties?”

 

Yes, they all nodded.

 

“In 2003, we increased penalties on the mail-in ballot fraud,” Guillen noted. “But most of that range ends up in the purview of the prosecutors, and in most of these cases it goes to a plea deal.”

 

Just getting someone to prosecute the crimes is difficult, said Pamela Hill, elections head in San Patricio County.

 

“And the investigators from the attorney general’s office are in la-la land. They just don’t have the expertise,” Montalvo said.

 

“And you could argue that the attorney general is political, too,” Ortiz, a Democrat, said. State Attorney General Greg Abbott is a Republican.

 

The administrators wondered if holding a candidate accountable for the actions of campaign assistants might discourage illegal activity.

 

As the meeting ended, though, it seemed that any solutions would have to first pass through a political filter.

 

“So what I’m hearing here is that voter ID won’t solve anything,” Ortiz proclaimed near the end. He promised that voter ID would be a contentious and partisan issue in the upcoming session, similar to last, when a plan to require voters to show two forms of ID or a photo ID failed.

 

“Voter ID would certainly not solve our problems, but if someone were to ask me if I were in favor, I would say yes,” Ramon said. ID is required for publicly-funded medical programs, for a Social Security card, for a passport. “Why not for this?” she asked.

 

Ruiz, too, said he favored stiffer voter ID requirements.

 

The meeting broke up with promises of another get-together after the November election, as prefiling of bills for the 82nd legislative session begins in December.

 

“This is the closest we’ve come to actually getting some help,” Ruiz said after the meeting. He and his fellow South Texas elections officials have been meeting for two years, commiserating over the unique issues they face. Politiqueras gone bad. Residences behind trees. Cookouts held by candidates next door to polling locations.

 

“Just getting someone here to listen is a good step,” Ruiz continued. “It’s the best shot we’ve got.”

 

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

 

Photo of 'Vikki behind a Tree' by flickr user zeddyorg, used via a Creative Commons license.

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.
South Texas elections chiefs to meet with lawmakers Tuesday on voter fraud
Monday, Aug 16, 2010, 02:57PM CST
By Steve Miller

A group of South Texas elections administrators will meet Tuesday with a cadre of state and U.S. representatives or their designees in a push to enact stronger laws targeting voter fraud.

The meeting, to he held at the offices of the Kingsville Chamber of Commerce in Kleberg County, south of Corpus Christi, marks the end of a long quest by elections officials in several South Texas counties who have complained to elected representatives in Austin about voter fraud issues for years but say they have received zero help.


“Now, if they hear something from us about an incident, at least they will know who we are,” said Roy Ruiz, elections administrator in Kenedy County. He is part of the group, which earlier this year began informally discussing voting issues unique to the region. Most of those issues revolved around voter fraud.


Ruiz, along with a couple other colleagues, have testified at state hearings on elections and urged state officials to enact legislation to address what some portray as routine voter fraud, particularly in the mail-in ballot process.


"We need to step up prosecutions and investigations of these voter fraud cases," said Rafael Montalvo, elections administrator in Starr County.


Texas Watchdog has documented the election administrators' complaints in a series of stories this year on mail-in voter fraud in South Texas.


Among the officials invited to attend Tuesday's meeting are state Reps. Ryan Guillen and Aaron PeñaU.S. Reps Solomon Ortiz and Rubén Hinojosa, a representative from the Texas Secretary of State’s election division and some state candidates, including J.M. Lozano, who is running for the District 43 House seat.


Ruiz will present the agenda and will be joined by an expected 10 other elections administrators, including the election chiefs from HidalgoStarrWebbJim Wells and Cameron counties.


Among the issues for discussion: controlling voter registration cards to prevent illegal voter registration, strengthening penalties for vote harvesting and coercion of absentee voters, and - reluctantly – voter ID.


“That’s the one we hate to have to address, but it is a reality and a possibility,” Ruiz said. Voter ID has been largely a political issue that some say comes from Washington Republicans bent on stemming illegal immigration and illegal immigrants casting ballots, which as a rule go to Democrats. Here is a study of voter ID requirements in the U.S.


The group will also look at the new voter registration card, which was designed without much input from elections administrators, Montalvo said.


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

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