EDINBURG — Amidst the hugs and tears, attorney Marty Golando leaned toward former Mission Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas and whispered, “They voided the election.”
The stunning decision by Judge J. Bonner Dorsey to void the June 9 mayoral runoff, in which Salinas was unseated after 20 years by Mayor Armando O’Caña, came after nearly two weeks of testimony but just a few minutes after the conclusion of closing arguments.
“I cannot ascertain the true outcome of the election,” Dorsey said. “I hold or find, by clear and convincing evidence, that the number of illegal votes was in excess of 158, somewhere in excess of 158.
“There’s no way to possibly determine. Nonetheless, that is my holding.”
Dorsey said he based his ruling on the bribery of voters, the paperwork of the mail-in ballots and the assistance of voters at the polls.
The judge made particular note of the bribery, saying, “I never thought I would hear admissions of being bribed.”
Over the course of the trial, Ricardo “Rick” Salinas, the attorney for his father, Beto Salinas, presented a case accusing the O’Caña campaign of illegally harvesting votes.
Salinas called on witnesses who testified to receiving money in exchange for votes, being illegally assisted at the polling sites, and being illegally assisted with their mail-in ballots.
“I feel very happy about the whole result,” said Beto Salinas. “I think that there was no way in the world the judge could do anything else but do the right thing, and the right thing was to void the election because there were so many things done wrong on their side.”
O’Caña, who will retain his seat as mayor as he appeals Dorsey’s decision, vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
“I do want to tell the people that I did not bribe anybody and that I’m still the mayor of Mission,” O’Caña said. “This is a legal process and I am filing an appeal.”
Although the judge ruled the runoff void, a new election cannot be called unless the appeals process has been exhausted and unsuccessful.
In expressing shock and disappointment by the judge’s ruling, O’Caña echoed similar sentiments by his attorney, Gilberto Hinojosa, who said he had strongly believed the judge would rule in their favor.
“This judge just made a decision that he was going to toss his obligations and the Texas Election Code, and base his decision on something that’s not contained in the Texas Election Code, ignore the evidence in the case and make the ruling that he made,” Hinojosa said. “I was shocked.”
Rick Salinas said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome.
“It seemed to me that (Dorsey) was very convinced this had occurred,” Salinas said to reporters after the ruling. “He was very willing to make that decision and I applaud him, I commend him.”
He said he believed the judge was courageous in his ruling considering that there are not many cases such as these, which he feels is due to apathy in prosecuting such cases.
However, there was a similar case occurred in Hidalgo County in June 2014, when state District Judge Menton Murray Jr. found that 30 votes were illegally cast in a November 2013 race that separated Weslaco City Commission candidates Lupe Rivera and Letty Lopez by just 16 votes.
An appellate court upheld Murray’s ruling — which was being challenged by Rivera, the incumbent commissioner at the time and the defendant in the case — in May 2015. The following September, a Hidalgo County district court set Nov. 3, 2015, as the date for a new municipal election in Weslaco, in which Lopez was victorious by 39 votes.
The Mission case started, Salinas said, because voters themselves came into his office to complain. He said he advocated for tightening the election code and that prosecutors from each county be willing to prosecute the cases.
“It was designed for that purpose,” Salinas said, “to instill fear in the people who are out there violating the law.”
This story was updated to correctly identify the visiting judge as J. Bonner Dorsey.