The Mission police department found that a complaint lodged against a McAllen City Commission candidate accused of committing voter fraud “held merit” and forwarded it to the Texas Attorney General’s office for further investigation, fueling an already-heated political firestorm that sparked in Edinburg.
The Monitor obtained a copy of the Mission police report from Houston attorney Jerad Najvar, who filed the complaint against Tania Yanet Ramirez on March 1. Najvar accused Ramirez of voting illegally in at least three Mission elections last year based on residency information she provided in her application to run for the District 4 seat on the McAllen commission.
The complaint against Ramirez is part of Najvar’s attempt to discredit the ongoing attorney general investigation into alleged voter fraud in Edinburg’s 2017 municipal election. The Houston attorney is currently defending a group of people aligned with Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina, who has seen 14 of his supporters arrested on felony illegal voting charges since he was elected mayor in November 2017.
That election pitted two political factions against each other, with each subsequently lobbing voter fraud accusations against the other.
One faction, led by former Hidalgo County Justice of the Peace Mary Alice Palacios, accused Molina supporters of conspiring to change a number of voters’ addresses just prior to the 2017 election to make them eligible to vote. Molina’s supporters charge the Palacios family and friends of doing the same, but over a longer period of time.
Both have submitted numerous complaints to the Texas Secretary of State’s office and any other agency willing to listen, and the allegations have gotten personal. Both sides have scrutinized supporters of the opposite faction, scouring through a number of public records and even social media accounts to support their allegations.
While the accusations made by Palacios have led to 14 arrests, those filed by Molina’s faction — namely by Edinburg councilman David Torres and political ally Miguel Angel Garza — have not had as much traction, even though the secretary of state referred five of them to the AG’s office, Najvar said.
The latest referral to the AG’s office by the Mission Police Department marks the sixth time Najvar and his clients have successfully referred cases to the state’s top law enforcement agency charged with investigating voter fraud.
Najvar provided The Monitor copies of the five complaints he said the secretary of state’s office forwarded to the AG last year. And much like the complaints made against the mayor’s supporters, they highlight close ties to political figures, including Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, whom Najvar has repeatedly accused of prosecutorial partiality regarding voter fraud cases.
“These complaints are substantially the same as the complaints the DA is already investigating in terms of the crimes that are alleged and the character of the (violations),” Najvar said. “They seem to warrant investigation as much, if not more, than the other complaints that are being investigated.”
For his part, Rodriguez said he has stepped away from any investigation or allegation made against his family and friends and is letting the AG’s office handle those inquiries, but emphasized he takes all voter fraud cases seriously.
“Friend, family or foe — everyone should be held accountable for illegally voting,” Rodriguez said.
Gov. Greg Abbott agrees.
Abbott tweeted a Monitor story March 11 shortly after the allegations against Tania Ramirez surfaced.
“More allegations of voter fraud in South Texas,” the governor wrote. “All allegations of election fraud should be looked into to ensure there’s no cheating at the ballot box.”
This is one of the cases the DA won’t touch.
Ramirez once worked for Rodriguez as an assistant district attorney before announcing her candidacy in McAllen’s May municipal election. And according to Najvar, they both supported each other’s bids for office.
She previously denied any wrongdoing when interviewed by The Monitor, but Mission police investigator Tomas Garces Jr., who was assigned to the case, indicated in his report that he believes Najvar’s allegations against Ramirez should be further examined.
“After reading the incident report I found the complaint held merit, but due to jurisdiction of this case I am referring the matter to the Secretary of State of Texas, Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office and the office of the attorney general,” Garces wrote in his report. “I submitted the complaint to the Secretary of State of Texas on March 6, 2019.”
Rodriguez said Friday his office had not received the complaint.
“The case was never forwarded to us … As a matter of fact, if the AG’s office has it, great. Let them look into it,” he said. “And if there’s any merit there … and the AG’s office investigates, so be it.”
These two accusations — which the secretary of state’s elections division forwarded as two separate cases to the AG’s office — are perhaps the most indicative of the political ties at play in Edinburg with the accused couple tied to both the Molina and Palacios camps.
David Torres, an Edinburg councilman and political ally of Molina, submitted the complaints last year accusing Alex and Zelma Davila of voting illegally during two elections: once during the 2017 Edinburg municipal election and again during the March 2018 primary.
The primary was especially important to Torres because his wife, Ellie Torres, was running to unseat a member of the Palacios family, Joseph Palacios, for the Precinct 4 seat on the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court.
Torres and his wife are also related to the Davilas.
“He’s our cousin,” Alex Davila, a U.S. Air Force major, wrote in a prepared statement to The Monitor in which he denied any wrongdoing on his and his wife’s behalf.
The Davilas are also close friends of the DA, a member of the Palacios family, and have expressed their continued support of Rodriguez in social media posts that Torres included as evidence in his complaint.
In the complaints filed in June 2018, Torres accused the Davilas of living in San Antonio and voting illegally in both local elections.
“I am attaching photos showing their social media posts that clearly indicate they live in San Antonio and travel to the Rio Grande Valley,” Torres wrote in his complaints. “They do not live here as indicated on their voter registration.”
He provided screenshots of a Facebook post from Alex Davila that reads: “Travel mercies as I travel to my home town to directly continue My support for the Re-Election of Ricardo Rodriguez Hidalgo County District Attorney – See Ya Soon Ricardo Rodriguez, Family & Friends…!!!”
Alex Davila, however, provided The Monitor a screenshot of a Facebook post from May 9, 2015, in which he and his wife are pictured holding a campaign sign for David Torres, who is standing next to them in the photo. A caption above the photo stated, “Made it safely to Edinburg and VOTED for MY COUSIN David Torres for City Council…!!! Please exercise Your Right to Vote…”
“I’ve deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq three times defending our freedom and our rights to vote,” Davila wrote about his 24 years of active duty in the military. “I am born and raised in my hometown of Edinburg of which I originally enlisted from into the military. I have voted one way throughout my military career and have never voted in any other county or state. I have done that with full transparency.”
Torres asserted the couple lives in the 9700 block of Leighs Drive in San Antonio in a home they own and claim as their homestead. He included copies of property records from the Bexar County Appraisal District that match his claim, as well as a copy of the warranty deed for the Davilas’ San Antonio home indicating the couple purchased it in 2005.
The Davilas, however, used an Edinburg address to vote in the local elections, Torres said, and provided records from the Hidalgo County Elections Department that indicate they voted using an Edinburg address in the 900 block of East Sprague Street owned by Ismael Orlando Garcia, according to county property records.
Torres also included a sworn affidavit in his complaints describing an incident between himself, Alex Davila and Miguel Angel Garza at the Edinburg Annex polling location. It appears Garza, who was a fixture at the polling location, filmed Davila as he exited the polling place and yelled out that the Davilas lived in San Antonio.
Davila expressed his concern about the video to Torres in a text message conversation, which Torres documented in his complaint via screenshots.
“On March 5, 2018, I received a text message from Alejandro Davila to please call him at (redacted),” Torres wrote in his sworn affidavit. “I called Mr. Davila and he stated he was concerned about the video that Mr. Garza had taken that could affect his wife, Zelma Davila. I then advised Mr. Davila that if he was so concerned about his wife why did he bring her to vote in Edinburg.”
For his part, Alex Davila said he is not concerned about Torres’ accusations against him and his wife.
“He has every right to file anything that concerns him,” he wrote. “We trust the attorney general’s office and we will cooperate to the fullest in any questions they may have.”
Read the complaint: Election Compl – Salinas Oberlyn redacted
The secretary of state also forwarded a complaint against Oberlyn “Obie” Salinas to the AG’s office for further investigation.
The former chief of staff for state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D- Eagle Pass, and former Edinburg Economic Development Corporation lobbyist, was also accused of committing voter fraud in the 2017 Edinburg municipal election, the March 2018 primary and the subsequent runoff in May.
And just like with the Davilas, there is a history between the two parties. Salinas’ brother, Oscar Salinas, sits on the Edinburg school board, where Molina’s faction was also challenging the political majority. Obie Salinas lost a $75,000 lobbying contract with the Edinburg EDC once Molina became mayor.
Salinas did not reply to a request for comment.
Miguel Angel Garza filed the complaint against Salinas in June 2018 accusing him of using his brother’s Edinburg address, in the 2400 block of Pecan Ridge Lane, to vote illegally in the Edinburg election while allegedly living in an apartment located in the 200 block of East 15th Street in Austin.
According to Garza, Salinas then purchased a home in Georgetown in November 2017, but continued voting in Hidalgo County during the 2018 elections. Garza provided property records that indicate Salinas purchased the home on Nov. 21, 2017.
“People have the misconception that residency is based on your pure statement of intent, and that’s not true,” said Najvar, the attorney representing Molina. “Your intent to permanently reside in some place is an important factor that has to be backed up by observable indications of your intent. … Even if he claims that his intent is to move him and his wife down to Edinburg, that doesn’t make a lot of sense because you just bought a $430,000 home in Georgetown.”
Garza filed his complaint with the secretary of state’s office about a month after he was arrested by Edinburg police on a fourth DWI charge, and his arrest highlighted his close relationship with David Torres.
Garza’s critics accused him of receiving preferential treatment by the Edinburg Police Department because the Edinburg councilman made a call to the police chief that allowed him to be released from custody before facing criminal charges. Garza went home and returned later to the municipal court for his arraignment on the third-degree felony charge.
In his complaint to the secretary of state’s office, Garza provided a copy of an invoice Obie Salinas submitted in connection with his former lobbying firm, Signature Advocacy, that requested payment be sent to his Austin apartment.
Garza also provided a sworn affidavit in which he indicated he has known Salinas for 29 years and has stayed at his apartment in Austin.
Read the complaint: Election Compl – Lopez Yvonne redacted
Garza also filed a complaint against Yvonne Lopez, the sister of state District Judge Letty Lopez, accusing her of living in Houston and voting illegally in the 2017 Edinburg municipal election. Like the others, the secretary of state has forwarded this complaint to the AG’s office for further inquiry.
Yvonne Lopez did not respond to a request for comment.
Najvar believes Yvonne Lopez had a special interest in the election because of an allegeded relation to the wife of Roland Villarreal, who at the time was running for a place on the Edinburg council.
“Roland Villarreal was running in 2017 with Palacios’ support,” the Houston attorney said.
Villarreal ultimately lost his bid to Gilbert Enriquez, who is part of Molina’s majority.
Najvar said his clients saw Yvonne Lopez holding a campaign sign for Villarreal outside a polling location and looked into her social media accounts, which indicated she lived and worked in Houston.
Garza provided election records indicating she voted in the 2017 election using an address located in the 800 block of West Stubbs Street, a home owned by Raul Lopez Jr., according to county property records.
Garza also provided a copy of Harris County property records and a warranty deed that indicate Lopez bought a home in the 5200 block of Dartmoor Ridge Trail in 2012. Also included in the complaint were motor vehicle records that listed her Houston address. Raul Lopez Jr. is also listed as an owner of the vehicle.
Read the complaint: Election Compl – Amaya Iesha redacted
Garza filed a final complaint against Iesha Rebekah Amaya, accusing her of using a different address to vote in Edinburg while allegedly living outside city limits. The secretary of state also referred this case to the AG’s office.
Amaya’s family served as an ambulance vendor for the city of Edinburg while the former mayor Richard Garcia was at the helm.
“I think that’s how they came to my clients’ attention during the (election),” Najvar said. “They were big supporters of the Garcia slate and my clients looked at the voting records from the county and saw that they were registered (to vote) in the city, but we know they don’t live there.”
Garza provided election records that indicate Amaya voted in the 2017 municipal elections using an address located in the 3200 block of East Efrain Street to cast her vote.
Hidalgo County property records list Ignacio Amaya as the homeowner, but it’s unclear if they are related. Amaya did not respond to a request for comment.
Garza also included motor vehicle records that list her address at a home in the 8300 block of East Montecristo Road. The Monitor also found she listed that same address in 2012 on her Texas driver’s licence.
‘WHERE’S THIS CASE’
The DA referred questions about these six cases to the attorney general’s office.
“Those are things that the AG’s office is going to take a look at and they have to decide whether there was any voter fraud or not,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know why it’s so difficult to call the AG’s office and ask them, ‘Hey, where’s this case at? Are they investigating it?’”
Najvar said he hopes the AG’s office will not be influenced by politics.
“There’s a lot of good, honest people who just want things to change,” he said, “and it’d be a real shame if the attorney general’s office allows themselves to be manipulated by a conflicted local district attorney and looks the other way while his supporters, family and friends get immunity from (electoral) fraud.”