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In March of 2018, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office blasted out a press release announcing the indictments of three people in southern Texas for serious election and voting-related crimes. It was one of several press releases his office sent that year trumpeting arrests and indictments connected to voting misconduct.
In the case of the three people in the small town of Robstown, which is just outside of Corpus Christi, the accusations were serious: A grand jury indicted one man with three counts of unlawfully divulging a vote, a third-degree felony, and two women with multiple counts of election crimes, including an “illegal voting” charge, a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison.
Paxton’s announcement arrived after people in the area said they had long seen evidence of election fraud, but no one had been willing to act on it. During a January 2018 city commissioner meeting, elected officials and candidates spoke about how, for years, they believed people were going to the homes of elderly voters and stealing and manipulating their mail-in ballot votes.
Kara Sands, the Nueces County clerk who contacted Paxton’s office, told HuffPost that she had spoken to “too many voters that ... were scared of them and felt bullied and pressured to give them the ballot.”
But ultimately, the most serious charges didn’t hold up: A jury acquitted the man, Robert Gonzalez, on Wednesday. As for the women, an attorney from Paxton’s office conceded last year that his office didn’t have anything resembling a big case, HuffPost found through court transcripts.
The first woman, Cynthia Kay Gonzalez, pleaded guilty to three charges because she hadn’t properly indicated she had assisted a voter. The charges she pleaded to were relatively minor, Lance Kutnick, a prosecutor in Paxton’s office, admitted at the plea hearing.
“Unfortunately, we just can’t prove those serious felonies, so we are left with these, for lack of a better word, lower level charges,” Kutnick said.
The second woman, Rosita Flores, pleaded guilty to unlawful assistance of a voter, a misdemeanor.
Both women did not finish high school, had no prior criminal record, and claimed they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong at the time, according to the court transcripts HuffPost obtained.
The details of the cases of the two women are especially noteworthy because they resulted in some of the most serious punishments secured by Paxton’s office since early 2018, according to a list HuffPost obtained from the AG.
Paxton has emphasized prosecuting election fraud in a political climate in which President Donald Trump has made unsubstantiated claims about noncitizens voting, and as the Hispanic electorate is growing. Despite Paxton’s intense focus on this issue, his office does not appear to have secured convictions proving widespread election fraud since increasing attention to the issue in 2018 — but he has continued to aggressively pursue prosecutions.
Paxton’s office had 75 active election fraud investigations and 15 cases pending as of last month.
“The sheer number of prosecutions brought by our office, and convictions secured by our office, should be enough to confirm that Texans are being deprived of their legal voice by the casting of illegal ballots,” Paxton’s office wrote in a letter to House Democrats last month.
Paxton touts that his office prosecuted 33 defendants in 2018, a statistic The New York Times has repeated twice. In reality, 30 of those cases resulted in prosecution diversion programs — a clear sign they were relatively minor cases, HuffPost previously reported. Of the three cases with the most serious punishments on Paxton’s 2018 list, one involved a Mexican woman who was sentenced to jail for stealing the identity of a U.S. citizen and voting illegally. She was slated for deportation. An attorney who represented her did not respond to HuffPost’s multiple requests for comment. There was no available transcript for her case, according to a county clerk.
The other two cases are those of Gonzalez and Flores. They committed election crimes involving mail-in ballots, something Texas tightly regulates.
There is already too little education on the state’s existing voting regulations, which can be confusing, civil rights advocates say, noting that the intense focus on the few cases of election fraud could intimidate lawful voters.
“You have a state that’s going out of its way to find people to prosecute so they can trump up this voter fraud bogeyman, so they can use that for all kinds of political purposes,” said Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of Common Cause Texas.
The Case Of Cynthia Gonzalez
When Cynthia Kay Gonzalez appeared before a judge to plead guilty to three election criminal charges last year, she still seemed confused about what exactly she had done wrong. She had “tried helping [a] gentleman to go vote,” she told the judge.
A grand jury originally indicted her on several charges related to illegally trying to influence the vote of an older voter, during the May 2016 Nueces County Democratic primary runoff election.
Gonzalez was paid at least a few hundred dollars to work on behalf of Frank Flores III, the son of Rosita Flores, who was in a contested race for constable during that primary, according to local campaign finance reports. The payments were evidence Gonzalez had a financial interest in getting senior citizens to turn over their votes, Sands, the county clerk, said in an interview.
Joel Thomas, an attorney who represented Gonzalez, strongly disputed that characterization in an interview with HuffPost. Gonzalez didn’t intimidate anyone and had no idea what she was doing was wrong, he said. Although she was compensated for her work, he said she didn’t have a formal financial contract with the candidate she worked for.
“If you meet my client ― she’s a very frail woman. She certainly isn’t going to intimidate anybody into voting her way,” he said.
During Gonzalez’s plea hearing, Kutnick, the prosecutor from Paxton’s office, said he couldn’t prove the most serious allegations against her, which included marking another person’s ballot without consent and indicating how they should vote. He said the man whose vote Gonzalez was charged with tampering with was “physically and mentally incapacitated.”
After an investigation, all the attorney general’s office could prove was that Gonzalez hadn’t properly indicated she had helped with one voter’s mail-in ballot. (She said she got between 20 and 30 votes total). She was sentenced to a $500 fine and probation, which included a few days in the county jail. She was also barred from assisting with future elections.
During the plea hearing, Thomas expressed frustration that the attorney general’s office was going after his client.
“I wish the state would aim a little higher up the chain on these cases to make their point about the voter fraud situation,” he said.
Kutnick conceded that the attorney general’s office was unable to show a broader scheme of wrongdoing.
“In general terms, I think the people higher up on the pyramid, that they’re able ― they’re able to insulate themselves with various schemes and tactics,” Kutnick replied. “I suspect there’s probably a higher pyramid in this specific case, but unfortunately we got as high as we could in this case, which I don’t think is necessarily very high.”
“I think it’s the bottom of the ― of the pyramid here,” he admitted.
But Jason Smith, a civil lawyer in Tarrant County, Texas, said there didn’t appear to be evidence of any kind of broader scheme.
“These are real weak cases that certainly don’t demonstrative a pervasive problem. These people don’t seem to be part of some left-wing conspiracy to commit election fraud. It seems like, kind of, individuals who didn’t really understand election law and made an honest mistake,” said Smith, who wasn’t involved in the case and reviewed the transcripts of the plea hearings at HuffPost’s request.
The Case Of Rosita Flores
Rosita Flores, a woman from Robstown in her 70s, told the judge during her plea hearing last June she initially thought she “was doing the right thing.”
Flores claimed that another candidate and a man asked her to help the man’s elderly mother vote, because the woman couldn’t vote by herself. Flores brought along a sample ballot.
Flores assisted “quite a few” other people who she knew as well, she said.
A grand jury charged Flores with an offense related to knowingly marking the elderly woman’s mail-in ballot without her consent (or aiding someone who did), and another for wrongly possessing her ballot or envelope.
Flores wanted to get her son elected, Sands, the county clerk, told HuffPost. The judge also suggested Flores was trying to sway the election in favor of her own son.
However, the indictment involved actions undertaken during the general election, in which Flores’ son was running unopposed — a point that seemed to confuse the AG’s attorney, Kutnick.
“I can’t explain what she was doing,” he said.
Ultimately, the state couldn’t prove much: The elderly woman whose ballot was in question couldn’t assist the state because of memory issues, according to Kutnick. Flores only pleaded guilty to unlawful assistance of a voter, a misdemeanor, related to her bringing over a sample ballot to the woman’s house.
Flores was fined $1000 plus court costs and had to serve 10 days in jail as a condition of her probation. Her defense attorney argued against jail time because Flores had no criminal record and was the sole caretaker for her elderly husband, who was bedridden, and her daughter.
Flores’ attorney and her son, the constable, did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment. When reached by phone, Flores declined to comment on the case.
She was “sick about it,” she said.
Paxton’s office did not comment on the cases, except to note that in the case of Robert Gonzalez, “we believe the evidence presented at trial showed violations of the Texas Election Code,” according to a spokesman, who nonetheless noted they “respect the jury’s verdict.”
Sands said she stood by what her office turned over to Paxton’s office, even though the attorney general was unable to prove the most serious charges in court. Several voters had told her of numerous irregularities, including some who said their vote had been coerced, and they didn’t know they were allowed to vote for the candidate of their choosing, she told HuffPost.
“I have to protect the integrity of the elections and make sure that they’re fair. And I’m not gonna turn a blind eye. I’m not gonna ignore it. If there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there,” she said. “I don’t know why the attorney general didn’t say this; a lot of these victims are scared.”
She added that she didn’t believe Gonzales and Flores didn’t know that what they were doing was illegal.
Cezar Martinez, a 26-year-old Robstown city council member who testified on voter fraud before a state house committee, was pleased to see officials tackle what he perceived to be the problem of mail-in ballot fraud in his community. He noted that the issue has a bigger impact on a local election than a national one. “We’re making a difference in restoring the faith in our people,” he told HuffPost.
Paxton’s office had an interest in grabbing headlines for prosecuting voter fraud, but the circumstances in Nueces county just didn’t show there was a serious case, argued Thomas, Gonzalez’s attorney.
The AG’s office comes “running down here because they hear about this woman taking advantage of all these elderly people ... everyone wants to stop that kind of abuse from happening,” he said.
“Unfortunately, there’s such a rush to make news — ‘Oh, here we are prosecuting voter fraud. We’re tough on that, Texas is hard on that’ — you miss what actually happened here.”
Some civil rights advocates worry that with Texas Republicans pushing for harsher penalties for voting violations, as well as legislation to further empower the attorney general to pursue these cases, the net effect could be dissuading lawful voters from participating.
“The party in charge very clearly has no interest in addressing the pitiful levels of political participation in Texas,” said Gutierrez. “They clearly love voter roll purges and any prosecution that provides however tenuous an opportunity to say ‘voter fraud’ in a press release.”
One person who is definitely not planning to get involved again is Gonzalez, who agreed not to assist in an election again as part of her plea bargain.
When the court asked if that was even constitutional as a condition of probation, Thomas replied that Gonzalez wouldn’t even contest it.
“Ms. Gonzalez has no desire to ever participate in another election as a volunteer ever again,” he said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.