Edinburg responds to city secretary arrest by assuring operations not affected

22 now arrested in election fraud case probing city’s November 2017 mayoral race

As more arrests were made Tuesday in an investigation into Edinburg’s November 2017 mayoral election, the most recent being the city secretary who was taken into custody after leaving a city commission meeting, the municipality responded much like it has throughout the course of the probe: with assurances.

In a statement released to the media Wednesday, the spokeswoman for the city of Edinburg, Cary Zayas, struck a familiar tone in assuring the public that the arrest of its city secretary in connection with an election fraud investigation would not affect the city’s operations. A previous statement about Edinburg’s mayor, Richard Molina, when he was arrested in connection with this case assured the same.

“We are aware of the events involving the City Secretary. The accusation against her is not connected to operations at City Hall nor as her role as an appointed employee. We wish her and her family well as they go through the legal process,” the statement read. “Services provided to our residents by the City Secretary department and City Hall continue as usual. Our focus remains on continuing to provide excellent customer service to the residents of Edinburg.”

Officials with the Texas Attorney General’s office arrested Edinburg City Secretary Ludivina Leal after Tuesday’s city commission meeting.

Calls to Edinburg City Manager Juan Guerra and spokeswoman Zayas for additional comment have gone unreturned.

Leal, 42, was formally indicted on one count of illegal voting Aug. 29, by a Hidalgo County Grand Jury, court records show.

According to Leal’s indictment, she’s accused of illegally voting in the aforementioned election; but Leal, an Edinburg resident, was eligible to vote in that election.

Information given by Jose Antonio Vela II, 28, of Mission, in a probable cause affidavit, who was charged with providing a false statement on a voter registration application, reveals that he told AG investigators he used Leal’s residence in Edinburg on that application.

According to election records, Vela made the change on the application on Sept. 25, 2017 — less than two months before the election and six months prior to Leal taking over as city secretary.

AG investigators interviewed Leal on May 10, 2018, at her home in the 300 block of Keystone.

During that interview, investigators asked her about Vela, and if he had ever lived at her residence. She stated he had not, and had “never over the previous year,” the document read.

In Texas, you can be charged with a crime if you aided and abetted the crime, in this case Leal is being charged with illegal voting for allegedly allowing Vela to use her address to vote in the election.

Earlier Tuesday, AG officials arrested Alyssa Renae Cano, 35, of Pharr, an employee of another man already charged in connection with the investigation, Julio Cesar Carranza, records show. She also faces one count of illegal voting.

Leal and Cano are the 21st and 22nd persons who have been arrested in connection with the AG’s investigation into alleged voter fraud in the November 2017 election. Among those arrested are Molina and his wife, Dalia Molina.

According to the indictment, Molina faces one count of organized election fraud and 11 counts of illegal voting. Molina won in that election over the incumbent, Richard Garcia.

According to court records, 19 people have now been indicted in the investigation, which began in May 2018.

Leal, who has only been onboard with the city for roughly 18 months, took over as the city secretary roughly around last March, after then-city secretary Mayra Garza moved over to work for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation.

As part of the responsibilities of a city secretary, when the tasks are not contracted to an outside agency or to the county, managing city elections remains one of the most vital of the city secretary’s tasks.

In recently filed depositions by the attorneys for the city’s former spokeswoman, Irma Garza, former City Secretary Mayra Garza stated she believed she was on a list of employees who were going to be terminated after Molina took the mayoral office.

Irma Garza is also one of several other former city employees suing the city in federal court for political retaliation, specifically alleging she was terminated for supporting Molina’s opponent during the 2017 mayoral race.

Mayra Garza said she got the impression the Edinburg council wanted her out in part because “of the list that was floating around” and because employees who worked under her asked what was going to happen to her employment with the city, she said in the deposition.

The arrests came weeks after the county’s grand jury indicted 13 people previously arrested in connection with the investigation.

In addition to Leal and Cano, the total arrested in this case, but not all indicted, are: Veronica Vela Saenz, Jose Antonio Vela II, Maria San Juanita Alemna, Crystal Lee Ponce, Francisco Tamez Jr., Cynthia Tamez Jr., Ruby Tamez, Jerry Gonzalez Jr., Guadalupe Sanchez Garza, Brenda Rodriguez, Felisha Yolanda Rodriguez, Belinda Rodriguez, Rosendo Rodriguez, Araceli Gutierrez, Jose Ignacio Martinez, Gregorio Alaniz, Daniel Castillo, Richard Molina, Dalia Molina and Julio Carranza.

Alaniz and Gonzalez have yet to be formally indicted.

The Molinas and Carranza are due back for a pre-trial hearing in late November, court records show.

If convicted of the second-degree felony charge of illegal voting, defendants could face between two and 20 years in prison. While those facing the election fraud charge, a first-degree felony, face between five and 99 years to life in prison.

lzazueta@themonitor.com