April 01, 2004
Cuellar increases lead, Rodriguez calls foul

If Rep. Ciro Rodriguez was depending on the recount in Bexar County to pull him back up against Henry Cuellar, he's been disappointed. The recount of mail-in and provisional ballots cost him three more votes, which combined with a one-vote gain for Cuellar in Hays County puts him in a 201-vote hole. To say the least, he's not very happy about it.

"We feel very good, but the recount is not over," Cuellar spokesman Colin Strother said. "We are going to wait until the last vote is accurately counted."

Meanwhile, a visibly angry Rodriguez reiterated his concerns over Tuesday's recounts in Zapata and Webb counties, which shattered his original post-primary lead of 145 votes.

"Something is happening and it's not correct and it's not appropriate," Rodriguez said at a Wednesday morning news conference.

Rodriguez, a four-term incumbent, plans to file a lawsuit Friday to contest the recount results, which his attorney, Buck Wood, called "totally inexplicable and fraudulent."

Strother called Rodriguez's claims "totally baseless" and accused the San Antonio native of schoolyard antics.

"The sour grapes, sore loser thing is not in the best interest of this district," Strother said. "That's how children react to distress. Congressmen are supposed to act with dignity and leadership."

Despite the sudden appearance of many extra votes for Cuellar and the cote count discrepancy, the Webb County Democratic Pary chairman makes a pretty good case that the fault lies in the original count (optical scan equipment is blamed) and not fraud, as the ballots have apparently been kept under lock and key since the start of early voting. Presumably, the inevitable lawsuit will suss all of that out.

There's another possible way that this thing gets resolved, and it's almost too bizarre to contemplate:

[St. Mary's University political scientist Larry Hufford] envisions a possible, if far-fetched, situation in which the election could be placed in the hands of a Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.

If the Rodriguez lawsuit results in an overturn of the recount, Cuellar would likely appeal and the court process could be lengthy. If the outcome is not decided by the November general election, the U.S. House can step in, Hufford said.

"Cuellar would win because (House Speaker Tom) DeLay and (President Bush strategist Karl) Rove would see to it that Ciro Rodriguez, who has a pretty liberal voting record, would not be seated," Hufford said.

Boy howdy if that ain't democracy for ya.

Byron has some more on this. Check the comments for a pretty good explanation of the reasons behind the animosity in this dispute.

UPDATE: The Laredo Morning Times has a pretty good account, which I'm reproducing beneath the More link, since it apparently won't be there after today. Via the Quorum Report.

Cuellar's lead increases after Bexar vote recount

Times staff writer

After the stunning Tuesday developments in the recount of Democratic primary ballots in Webb and Zapata counties, Laredoan Henry Cuellar increased his lead Wednesday by another four votes over Congressman Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio.

He now leads Rodriguez by 201 votes in the 11-county congressional district.

After the Wednesday recount in Bexar County (mail-in and provisional ballots only) and Hays County, Cuellar had a net gain of four votes.

The recount, ordered by Cuellar last week, ends Thursday with the recount of ballots in Guadalupe and Comal counties.

Buck Wood, Austin attorney for Rodriguez, said Wednesday he will not file a lawsuit contesting the Webb and Zapata recount, until Webb finishes its re-recount of its ballots, expected to take place Sunday.

During a Tuesday afternoon recount, Webb election officials found an additional 115 ballots in the total number of ballots counted on election day (March 9) from the number hand-counted during the recount.

Roberto Balli, Webb County Democratic Chairman, said it was inaccurate for the news media to report that 115 ballots were "found."

"That is sensationalizing the issue. These ballots weren't lost or hidden somewhere and then found during the recount," Balli said.

What occurred, he said, is a discrepancy in the number of total ballots counted on election day versus the number of ballots hand counted in the recount.

While Webb officials found an additional 115 ballots on their hands, Cuellar picked up 177 extra votes, and Rodriguez picked up none.

That morning, in neighboring Zapata, election officials found an additional 304 votes, not ballots, during its recount. This allowed Cuellar to pick up an extra 237 votes, while Rodriguez picked up 67.

With these electoral developments in Webb and Zapata, Cuellar, who was previously trailing Rodriguez by 150 votes, was able to come from behind and take a 197-vote lead Tuesday. His margin swelled to 201 votes by Wednesday.

Wood, Rodriguez' attorney, is convinced fraud occurred.

"I've been doing this for 33 years, and nobody has ever seen anything like this in this state," said Wood.

By contrast, he noted that Cuellar and Rodriguez picked up only one to nine votes during the ballot recount in seven of the district's other counties.

"I understand everybody's going to say, 'nothing happened.' But something did happen. Hundreds of votes, almost 500 votes, appeared out of nowhere and not because of machine errors," Wood argued.

Wood said he does not understand how Webb County could report an extra 115 ballots or how Cuellar could amass an extra 177 votes in Webb.

"These ballots were counted by a machine on three separate occasions, all of which gave the right numbers. I can't emphasize this enough," Wood said.

"And there is no innocent explanation for how you could have an extra 174 votes for Cuellar and zero for Ciro. Again, like in Zapata, every bit of this increase occurred in early voting and mail-in ballots," Wood stated.

Wood's counterpart in the Cuellar camp is Ed Shack, an Austin attorney who has largely represented Republican clients. He most recently served as ethics adviser to Republican Speaker of the Texas House Tom Craddick (R-Midland).

Craddick is now being investigated for dealings with a political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, in the 2002 state legislative races. The PAC is the brainchild of Congressman Tom DeLay (R-SugarLand), who led the state's efforts to redistrict its congressional boundaries, leaving Webb and Laredo split for the first time in history.

"That is a non-issue," Cuellar said Tuesday, adding he knew Shack during his tenure as Texas Secretary of State. Cuellar was appointed to this post by Gov. Rick Perry in 2001 where he served for six months.

"Mr. Shack is a very good, qualified attorney who worked for the Secretary of State's elections division years ago. He knows election laws. He speaks election laws," Cuellar said.

Meanwhile, Bexar County Democratic Chairman Gabe Quintanilla has demanded that a special prosecutor be appointed to lead a grand jury investigation of potential fraud in Webb and Zapata counties.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Quintanilla took exception with Balli's "outright" dismissal of any possible criminal activity in the Webb County controversy.

"I respect Mr. Balli," Quintanilla began, before stating there exists "an inherent conflict" due to the fact that Balli is Webb County Democratic Chairman and First Assistant District Attorney.

Quintanilla is a San Antonio attorney and former prosecutor who was assigned to the grand jury division of the Bexar County DA's office.

Quintanilla said the proper course of action would be to recuse the Webb County DA's office and bring in a special prosecutor "to get to the bottom of this matter."

However, as First Assistant DA, Balli would have a leading role in any decision to empanel a grand jury, and as Democratic chairman, he could also be called as a fact witness, Quintanilla argued.

Joe Rubio, Webb County DA, and Balli strongly disagreed with Quintanilla.

"It's premature for him to be making those comments. He's presuming and assuming things that have not even been proven yet," Rubio said.

"The fact that Mr. Balli sits as the Democratic chair does not prohibit my office from investigating the matter. I have 21 assistant DAs and 11 felony attorneys who are perfectly capable of handling any election fraud investigation, independent of Mr. Balli," Rubio said.

Furthermore, there is no reason for the DA's office to step aside for a special prosecutor, he argued.

"At this point in time, all we have are allegations. What we need to do is finish with the recount and take it from there. There is no reason to name a special prosecutor and no legal basis to recuse. Mr. Balli would not make the final decision, I would make the final decision," Rubio added.

Balli concurred.

"First of all, Mr. Quintanilla as a private citizen is entitled to his opinion. I disagree with him," Balli responded.

"There has been no criminal complaint filed as far I know regarding this election. In addition, we're still in the process of a possible second recount and that might clarify the entire matter...I'm allowed, under certain circumstances, to request an entire recount," Balli said.

"If a criminal complaint is filed, or there is evidence of wrongdoing, I'm the most interested person in denouncing that and attempting to discover that...Up to now, I've been one of the persons most critical of the process and most concerned about what has happened and I want to discover where there was error made so that we can address that problem in the future," Balli said.

Wood, meanwhile, said his focus is not a criminal investigation but his civil lawsuit.

"I want to figure out who won the election in this congressional race," Wood said.

(Staff writer Tricia Cortez can be reached at 728-2568 or tricia@lmtonline.com.)


Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 01, 2004 to Election 2004 | TrackBack