Fifteen plead not guilty in Edinburg voter fraud case

Ludivina Leal, Edinburg city secretary, walks out of the courtroom after being arraigned for alleged voter fraud along with 14 others in the 92nd state District Court at the Hidalgo County Courthouse on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

EDINBURG — Fifteen people accused of voting illegally in the 2017 Edinburg municipal election faced a judge Thursday morning and pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Visiting Judge Manuel Bañales formally arraigned them, one by one, on felony illegal voting charges in the 92nd state District Court.

The court proceedings came as early voting got underway in Edinburg, where six candidates are vying for two seats on the council.

A large majority of the defendants did not have funds to hire an attorney, they told the judge, so Bañales sent them to the Indigent Defense department, where they were appointed one.

Among the accused was Edinburg City Secretary Ludivina Leal. Leal, who allegedly helped someone cast an illegal vote, was recently stripped of her duties as elections administrator for the upcoming municipal election Nov. 5.

The city secretary was one of the few who hired an attorney. Al Alvarez represented her, Veronica Vela Saenz, and Daniel Castillo in court Thursday, promoting Assistant District Attorney Michael Garza to note a potential conflict of interest.

Alvarez is representing four defendants in related cases and doing so could create a conflict for his clients, Garza told Bañales. Bañales agreed and told Leal that Alvarez would essentially “have two masters.”

Leal said she was aware of the potential conflict of interest and decided to proceed with Alvarez as her attorney. Saenz and Castillo said the same thing.

One woman, Araceli Gutierrez, broke down in tears when she found out the jury had tacked on another charge, which meant she would once again have to be booked into jail. Her court-appointed attorney, however, assured her she could get her a personal recognizance bond.

A 16th person, Guadalupe Sanchez Garza, was scheduled to face Bañales, but she was not served. Her formal arraignment is now set for Nov. 7.

The other 15 defendants are scheduled to appear for a pre-trial hearing Jan 3, 2020.

nlopez@themonitor.com

Visiting Judge Manuel Banales talks with suspect Rosendo Rodriguez during his arraignment for alleged voter fraud in the 92nd state District Court at the Hidalgo County Courthouse on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)