Votes in Texas Town Allegedly Bought With Beer and Cigarettes

ABC News
Votes in Texas Town Allegedly Bought With Beer and Cigarettes
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Votes in Texas Town Allegedly Bought With Beer and Cigarettes (ABC News)

A poor Texas town has been rocked by a federal investigation into charges that votes for a school board election were bought with a few dollars worth of beer and cigarettes, accusations that surfaced just days before the school board president reportedly hanged himself.

The arrest of three people and the suicide came as the FBI pressed its investigation into alleged vote buying in Donna, Texas, a town so poor that some homes do not have electricity or running water.

The latest indictment came Tuesday after Diana Balderas Castaneda, 48, allegedly admitted to FBI agents that she bribed approximately 10 people to vote for Democratic school-board candidates on Election Day 2012.

Bribery also allegedly took place months earlier in the school board's primary election. In an interview with FBI agents in March 2013, Castaneda said she was paid $125 by a school-board candidate to provide food and cash to primary voters – sometimes up to $20 for each vote, according to charging documents filed in the case.

In some instances, Castaneda took voters to buy drugs after a campaign manager paid them for votes, or Castaneda paid them with beer or cigarettes, the charging documents allege.

Last month, FBI agents spoke with an alleged recipient of Castaneda's bribes, identified in court documents only as "Witness 2." The witness told agents that on Nov. 6, 2012, Castaneda provided a card with the names of candidates circled, and "the opposing candidates' names crossed out," according to federal prosecutors.

"After voting, Castaneda told Witness 2 she would meet him/her at the shed by Witness 2's friend's house that same day to pay Witness 2," prosecutors allege in court documents. "She paid Witness 2 $10 for voting for her candidates."

Castaneda was arrested on initial charges last month. Two others from the Donna, Texas, area – Guadalupe Escamilla, 72, and Rebecca Gonzalez, 44 – were also arrested last month on similar charges, and they were formally indicted last week for alleged vote-buying in the election.

Shortly after the trio's arrests, Donna school board President Alfredo Lugo hanged himself in his home, according to Texas newspaper The Monitor. The paper did not say whether any of the three defendants worked for Lugo, and the criminal complaints first filed against them do not name any of the school board members involved in the case.

Lugo and three of his incumbent allies were all reelected in the November 2012 election, despite being criticized for the performance of their district's schools. Fifteen of the district's schools failed to meet federal guidelines that year, according to The Monitor.

Donna is an "extremely poor" community, which over the years has repeatedly seen corruption and kickbacks in its local politics, according to a legal source familiar with the most recent case.

"People are desperate and hungry," with some residents living in "shanty-type homes" that have no running water and no electricity. So in some cases, community members are driven to seek public service as a source of money, the source told ABC News.

"It does not excuse illegality," the source said, "but people do weird things because of poverty."

The source described Lugo as "a hero to many in the community" who lost his way.

If convicted, Castaneda, Escamilla and Gonzalez could each face up to five years in prison. Lawyers representing Gonzalez and Escamilla each said their client would be entering a plea of not guilty when arraigned Friday.

In addition, Escamilla's defense attorney, David Higdon, said he has "not seen any evidence of wrongdoing at this point."

A message left at the office of Castaneda's attorney on Thursday was not returned.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment for this article.

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