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Houston Votes

Congressional Dems request federal investigation of Abbott’s persecution of Houston Votes

Good.

Still not Greg Abbott

Democratic congressmen from Texas have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate a raid by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office that targeted a nonprofit voter registration group.

The Dallas Morning News reported Aug. 31 on the attorney general’s criminal investigation of Houston Votes, which was accused of election fraud. The probe was closed one year later, with no charges filed.

Following the armed raid in 2010, the funding for Houston Votes dried up. Its efforts to register more low-income voters in the state’s most populous county, Harris, ended. The group’s records and office equipment were destroyed under a court order obtained by Abbott’s office last year.

In a Sept. 10 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the 12 Democratic House members from Texas asked the Justice Department to open an investigation into the matter.

“This raid raises serious concerns about the biased use of state resources to prevent Texans from legally registering to vote,” the letter said.

Texas has 36 House districts, with Republicans holding 24 seats.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the investigation request is being reviewed.

Reached for comment, Jerry Strickland, an Abbott spokesman, said in an email: “If the Texas Democratic Congressional delegation is interested in more than political grandstanding and is genuinely concerned with following and enforcing the law, they should demand the Department of Justice investigate Houston Votes’ illegal activity.

“Houston Votes’ own executive director admitted to attorney general investigators that they fraudulently signed voter registrations and illegally collected information to sell to ACORN-linked Project Vote – that’s precisely the kind of illegal activity the Justice Department needs to investigate,” Strickland added.

No one was charged in the Houston Votes investigation.

[…]

Lewis questioned why Abbott through his spokesman on Thursday was accusing Houston Votes of “illegal activity” even though no charges were filed.

“They came in with guns and took our equipment and destroyed it, and they never interviewed me. And now there were a lot of things wrong? It sounds like a gross rationalization,” Lewis said. “They tried to criminalize a voter registration drive where everyone knows people make mistakes and there are errors, because they wanted to stop it. They succeeded.”

Indeed they did. See here for the background. Conducting an armed raid for information that would have been handed over with a subpoena, and justifying it today with boogeyman fearmongering tells us what we need to know. Abbott may have had grounds to open an investigation, but he way overdid it and is trying to distract from the fact that there was nothing there. Let’s turn the spotlight on this and see what else is lurking in the shadows.

Abbott’s voter registration persecution

Now this is what a partisan witch hunt looks like.

Still not Greg Abbott

On an overcast Monday afternoon, officers in bulletproof vests swept into a house on Houston’s north side. The armed deputies and agents served a search warrant. They carted away computers, hard drives and documents.

The raid targeted a voter registration group called Houston Votes, which was accused of election fraud. It was initiated by investigators for Attorney General Greg Abbott. His aides say he is duty-bound to preserve the integrity of the ballot box.

His critics, however, say that what Abbott has really sought to preserve is the power of the Republican Party in Texas. They accuse him of political partisanship, targeting key Democratic voting blocs, especially minorities and the poor, in ways that make it harder for them to vote, or for their votes to count.

A close examination of the Houston Votes case reveals the consequences when an elected official pursues hotly contested allegations of election fraud.

The investigation was closed one year after the raid, with no charges filed. But for Houston Votes, the damage was done. Its funding dried up, and its efforts to register more low-income voters ended. Its records and office equipment never were returned. Instead, under a 2013 court order obtained by Abbott’s office, they were destroyed.

And the dramatic, heavily armed raid never was necessary, according to Fred Lewis, president of Texans Together, the nonprofit parent group of Houston Votes. “They could have used a subpoena,” he said. “They could have called us and asked for the records. They didn’t need guns.”

The previously unreported 2010 raid coincided with agitation by a local tea party group and Lewis’ testimony in the trial of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. Lewis had filed a complaint against DeLay that, in large part, led to his indictment on corruption charges.

Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, declined interview requests. A spokesman, Jerry Strickland, said the attorney general does not recall being briefed by staff members on the Houston Votes investigation.

“In this investigation — and all other investigations conducted by the Office of the Attorney General — evidence uncovered dictates direction,” Strickland said in an email. “To insinuate there were other factors at work in this case is ludicrous and unfounded.”

Read the whole thing and see for yourself how “unfounded” it is. It’s a toxic mix of True The Vote paranoia, bad practices and bad faith from the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, and Abbott’s zeal to prove that somewhere, somehow there exists justification for voter ID laws. And then there’s the best part:

Abbott’s office said the Harris County district attorney in October 2011 “declined to accept for prosecution the case as prepared by investigators of the Texas Attorney General office,” according to a court document filed last year.

The document said the case related to a violation of an identity theft law in the Penal Code, which is a felony. It did not list names or details.

Strickland, the Abbott spokesman, said the attorney general’s office does not have jurisdiction to prosecute that section of the Penal Code. As a result, the information was given to the Harris County district attorney’s office, he said in an email.

The News on June 10 filed a public records request with the attorney general for the case file. Abbott’s office, which is in charge of enforcing the state’s open records law, asked itself for a ruling on whether those records must be released. In an Aug. 28 letter, the attorney general’s office ruled that it may withhold the records under state law.

The records are exempt from required release because they pertain to a criminal investigation that did not result in a conviction or deferred adjudication, wrote Lindsay Hale, an assistant attorney general in the Open Records Division.

It’s unclear how often Abbott’s office investigates allegations similar to the ones leveled at Houston Votes.

In response to requests from The News, the attorney general’s office provided a list of 637 potential violations of the Elections Code referred to Abbott since he took office in late 2002.

Strickland said he could not say how many were investigated or how many involved alleged voter registration fraud. “The office does not ‘compile or keep statistics,’” he said.

The Harris County district attorney’s office declined to comment on the Houston Votes case. Terese Buess, assistant district attorney over the public integrity division, told The News that her office doesn’t discuss cases that don’t result in criminal prosecution. But “generally, criminal charges are only authorized when there is evidence that establishes probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed.”

Emphasis mine. So Greg Abbott asked Greg Abbott if Greg Abbott needs to release information about Greg Abbott’s half-baked partisan-driven investigation, and Greg Abbott said that Greg Abbott didn’t have to if Greg Abbott didn’t want to. Makes sense to me. Be sure to read the whole thing, there’s a lot to digest. PDiddie, Nonsequiteuse, and Texpatriate have more.

UPDATE: Definitely read this update from Nonsequiteuse as well.

Another lawsuit relating to voter registration in Harris County

As we know, the TDP is suing the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office (again) over allegations that they are still not properly handling voter registrations. That suit followed the ugly accusations Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez and his radical buddies the King Street Patriots made against Houston Votes. Turns out that Houston Votes president Fred Lewis has also filed a lawsuit stemming from that.

A few weeks after [the TDP filed its suit], on Sept. 24, Lewis sued True The Vote. He claims that the group blatantly lied when it said most of its registrations had been rejected, and that the “vacant lot” registrations had been made in 2008 and 2009 — before Houston Votes was founded and when those lots still had homes on them.

“Plaintiffs believe that these are only a small part of the Defendants’ lies that have defamed and libeled Plaintiffs. In addition, Defendants have conspired with others to spread these and other lies,” the suit reads.

According to the lawsuit, [True The Vote president Catherine] Engelbrecht said — at an August meeting which featured DOJ whistleblower J. Christian Adams — that the Houston Votes headquarters is “the Texas office of the New Black Panthers.” In a video on Engelbrecht’s King Street Patriots’ web site, you can see her refer to a building as the “New Black Panthers’ office,” to gasps from the audience. She then mentions that people around the building wear T-shirts that look “suspiciously” like Houston Votes T-shirts.

The Trib has more on this:

The suit arises from comments [Engelbrecht] made at an Aug. 9 True the Vote meeting that linked Houston Votes to the New Black Panthers, a radical black separatist group known for the inflammatory statements of its leaders. The meeting featured a speech from Christian Adams, the Department of Justice lawyer who resigned in June to protest a decision by his higher-ups to drop an investigation into whether the Panthers intimidated Philadelphia voters during the 2008 presidential elections. While introducing Adams, Engelbrecht showed an undated clip of an unidentified black man in dreadlocks on speaking on Fox News, saying, “We have to exterminate white people off the face of this planet to solve this problem.” After playing the clip, Engelbrecht said, “Houston has a new neighbor; the New Black Panthers have opened up an office.” Then she showed an image of the Houston Votes office, saying: “That looks mysteriously like the T-shirt that the Houston Vote group wears.”

The Liberty Institute, a conservative legal advocacy group that litigates First Amendment claims, is representing Engelbrecht and the Patriots in the defamation suit. Jeff Mateer, the Institute’s general counsel, declined comment on Engelbrecht’s behalf but said they’ll file an answer to Lewis’ complaint by Oct. 25. In a separate conversation, the Institute’s executive director, Hiram Sasser, called the suit “an effort to intimidate citizens to exercise their rights to free speech and the government,” adding that the Constitution provides broad protection to citizens who engage in political speech.

George says there’s a difference between Engelbrecht’s “known falsehoods” and protected political speech. “The complaining of one side that the other is a genocidal criminal is well beyond the pale of what we allow in America,” he says, noting that citizens can “talk about public matters in any way they want to, but they cannot make up lies.”

You can see the video in question at the Trib link. I have no idea what will happen with the suit, though I welcome any opinions from actual lawyers about it. What I do know is that in a real sense, Vasquez and Engelbrecht and that lot have already won:

Meanwhile, on Oct. 4 — the deadline for registering to vote for the November election — Houston Votes 2010 was well below its goal of adding 100,000 new voters to the rolls. “We had registered around 29,000 as of Vasquez’s press conference, when we lost substantial canvassers, funding, and volunteers,” Lewis said in an e-mail. “I do not have the final number from the database managers, but I believe we registered over 35,000 people.”

Houston Votes brought some problems on itself, and it may be that no one group can register 100,000 people in a place like Harris County in that short a time frame. It’s still a great shame that they ran into such fierce resistance for the act of trying to get people involved in our democracy. Fear is too powerful a force, I guess. Juanita and Glenn Smith have more.

Houston Votes responds

Earlier today Houston Votes responded to the accusations lobbed at them by outgoing Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez. First, here’s their press release:

On Tuesday, August 24, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Leo Vasquez made reckless and false allegations against Houston Votes in an apparently coordinated, partisan effort to suppress voter registration and to intimidate citizens into not voting. Sadly, this type of shameful tactic has worked all too well in the past. Houston Votes is committed to non-partisan voter registration and helping register the over 600,000 citizens eligible to vote who are not even registered in Harris County.

Fred Lewis, head of Houston Votes, said, “Those who propagate lies and distortions like those of Mr. Vasquez and his partisan allies are eroding our democracy, and we ask the Voting Rights Section of the Justice Department to immediately investigate and monitor his office and his radical allies.”

Mr. Vasquez’s histrionic complaints are false and defamatory. Houston Votes seeks to register as many Houstonians as are eligible, which Mr. Vasquez unfortunately sees as a “burden” and a threat. Rather than celebrate new registrants, Mr. Vasquez apparently intends to reduce his workload by intimidating people from registering. He and his staff are paid with taxpayer dollars to process voter registration cards. They should do their jobs without complaining or engaging in partisan, political activity.

The recklessness and falseness of Mr. Vasquez’s allegations, combined with his unprofessional and partisan actions, raise serious questions about his political motivations. Houston Votes is asking the Justice Department to investigate voting rights violations by Mr. Vasquez and his office through a political campaign to intimidate voter registration. The Registrar’s Office has a long history of voter suppression. We have reason to believe that his office is continuing its systematic practice of illegally not approving registration applications from eligible citizens despite public outcry and costly litigation.

Mr. Vasquez’s press conference, as part of his official non-partisan duties, was a political circus, with dozens of partisan operatives present. Mr. Vasquez appears to have abused the power of his office by collaborating with the King Street Patriots, a partisan organization that took credit for uncovering the “fraud” alleged against Houston Votes This political organization’s website states “that current political initiatives must be focused on mobilizing the conservative electorate”. It appears that Leo Vasquez openly coordinated with King Street Patriots to further personal political goals and retard the efforts of Houston Votes in registering people. He also appears to have shared legally confidential voter registration data with partisan political third parties, which is unlawful. Both activities warrant a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

Here’s their detailed rebuttal to the allegations. The main points they make are that they had been working with Vasquez’s office to ensure they were complying with the law (here’s the letter they wrote to Vasquez and County Attorney Vince Ryan to set up one such meeting back in July); they had taken action every time an irregularity had been pointed out, including firing workers who were not doing things right; they had tried to contact Vasquez prior to his spectacle when they had heard rumors that he was unhappy with them, but he never called them back; and that Vasquez did not provide any corroborating evidence for the claimed numbers of questionable forms. I don’t recall seeing any reports of such corroboration in previous stories about Vasquez’s dog and pony show. Perhaps someone should have pressed him on that. We’ll see what Vasquez and his comrades have to say next. Neil, who was at this conference and another one held by the teabaggers, has more.

Vasquez throws a bomb at Houston Votes

I guess outgoing Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez wasn’t quite ready to return to obscurity.

Harris County Tax Assessor Collector Leo Vasquez accused a nonprofit group of submitting thousands of bogus voter registration applications in recent months in what he said appears to be a campaign to taint the voter rolls.

Vasquez said his office has received thousands of duplicate applications, including cases in which the office has received six applications for the same person. Other irregularities he cited in the more than 25,000 applications submitted by Houston Votes include cases of underage applicants and people who identified themselves as noncitizens.

“The integrity of the voter roll of Harris County, Texas, appears to be under an organized and systematic attack by the group operating under the name Houston Votes,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez lobbed these charges at a press conference that was more political rally than anything else, as he packed the place with the sort of people who are convinced that the streets are teeming with illegal voters. You can just imagine them high-fiving and chest-bumping in the background.

The accusations boil down to some number of duplicated registrations, and some number of registrations with invalid data. Seems to me that’s mostly to be expected in a large voter registration drive.

[Texans Together President Fred] Lewis explained that duplicates often happen when people are not sure whether they are registered or cannot remember if they have registered since they last moved.

Lewis said he had continued to try to cooperate with Vasquez, but that the tax collector, who serves as the county’s voter registrar, had not returned his calls in the past week. He said they had been scheduled to meet this morning to discuss Houston Votes applications.

“He is a disgrace,” Lewis said of Vasquez. “We need to have the Justice Department come in and see what Mickey Mouse stuff he and his office are doing to suppress people.”

It’s entirely possible that Texans Together has been sloppier than they should be. Maybe they’re not up to this task; maybe no one is. But to claim nefarious intent is quite a stretch, and I’ll be very surprised if the District Attorney, to whom Vasquez says he’s going to refer this, makes anything of it. I’m never quite sure how these schemes that Vasquez and his buddies dream about are supposed to work. Are all these people who’ve never voted before expected to show up at multiple polling places and hope nobody notices? Assuming that the bogus and duplicated registrations made it past both Vasquez and the Secretary of State, of course. Sure, that sounds bulletproof to me. I’ll bet Pat Lykos can’t wait to bring that before a jury.

I’ve also never quite understood why some people want to make it so hard for others to vote. I grew up believing that the right to vote was precious and what made democracy the best system of government there is. Apparently, that’s now a matter of partisanship. The story notes that much of the Texans Together board is made up of Democrats. Maybe that’s because the type of person who thinks it’s good for more people to vote tends to be Democratic. It’s been made quite clear in recent years that the type of person who wants to see fewer people vote tends to be Republican, that’s for sure.

Anyway, Houston Votes will have a press conference of their own today at 10:30 to formally respond to Vasquez’s allegations. I’ll update this afterward to include what they had to say. In the meantime, go see what Stace, Neil, John, Perry, and Houston Politics have to say.

Houston Votes kickoff party

Houston Votes, which is well on its way towards its goal of registering 100,000 new voters in Harris County for this election, is having a party and you’re invited.

Houston Votes Kickoff Party

RSVP here. Drink specials, no cover, and cool people. Come out and have a good time.