At long last, an update to the weirdest local election story of the year.
A grand jury has indicted two Houston residents on election fraud charges, accusing them of orchestrating a phony candidacy of a woman that forced longtime state Rep. Harold Dutton into a runoff in this year’s Democratic primary, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced Friday.
Richard Bonton, one of Dutton’s other primary opponents, is accused of conspiring with Natasha Demming to register her on the ballot as Natasha Ruiz, an alias that garnered enough support to force Dutton into a runoff with another challenger that he later won.
Dutton and Houston Councilman Jerry Davis, who lost to Dutton in the runoff, both said they never saw Ruiz during the primary or found any evidence she was running a campaign.
Bonton and Demming face felony charges of tampering with government records, which carries a maximum sentence of two years. They also are charged with election fraud and conspiring to tamper with government records, both of which are Class A misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail. Demming also is charged with perjury, a misdemeanor.
“Richard Bonton filed numerous election documents on behalf of Natasha Ruiz, intentionally circumventing laws designed to ensure that voters have legitimate candidates to choose from and intentionally obscuring his own involvement in putting up a straw candidate,” Ogg said, holding up a copy of Ruiz’s campaign treasurer’s report that she said contained false information.
See here, here, and here for the background. As a reminder, someone showed up at HCDP headquarters with a drivers license that said she was Natasha Ruiz and lived in HD142. Later, Natasha Demming claimed in an interview that she’d had her identity stolen. I infer from this story that Demming was the person who showed up as Ruiz – if someone else had done it, one presumes that person would also now be under indictment – and the perjury charge is for claiming under oath that it wasn’t her. As for Bonton, who had run unsuccessfully against Dutton in the 2018 primary as well, well:
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle two days after the primary, Bonton said he had never encountered Ruiz during the primary and was conducting an investigation of his own. He said he was upset about her candidacy, contending that she may have cost him a spot in the runoff against Dutton.
“It seems odd to me that somebody that’s never been seen on the campaign trail all of a sudden mysteriously pops up,” Bonton said in the March 5 interview. “Not a yard sign, not a speech, not an event, a forum, nothing. A campaign of nothingness has resulted in 21 percent.”
Whoops. I wonder how much assistance Dutton’s private eye was in this investigation. The ironic thing is that if Bonton wanted a Latina to run against Dutton and maybe siphon some support away from him, he could have just found a real person to run as a stealth candidate. That’s not even a novel strategy, and it involves forging fewer documents. Lesson for the future, y’all.
There was another indictment as well.
Meanwhile, Damien Jones, a Democratic political consultant, was also indicted Friday on an allegation of sending an anonymous text threatening Calanni in an effort to get her to resign from office instead of running for reelection, according to the news release. The threat, Ogg said, was sent to Calanni in December 2019 just ahead of the 2020 election filing deadline. Calanni reported the threat to the Texas Rangers, which investigated the complaint with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Public Corruption Division.
Jones, who was indicted for two Class A misdemeanors — coercion of a public servant and false caller identification information display — could face up to a year in Harris County Jail and up to a $4,000 fine, if convicted.
There’s a bit more on this indictment in the Chron story and in the Press. It’s the first I’ve heard of this, and don’t have any idea about it beyond what’s in those articles. Jones has released a statement via his attorney, denying all the charges. We’ll see how it goes.