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TDP responds to Vasquez

From Saturday’s op-ed pages, here’s the Texas Democratic Party’s response, written by the TDP’s legal counsel Chad Dunn, to Leo Vasquez in the matter of Ed Johnson.

Johnson’s conflict of interest doesn’t pass the smell test, and during the course of our lawsuit, we’ve found evidence that improper partisanship may have affected the conduct of elections in Harris County.

For example:

1. Problems with Johnson’s provisional ballot operation were pointed out last November by a Republican, Jim Harding, who chaired the Harris County Ballot Board. Provisional ballot affidavits were not processed by the tax office until five days after the deadline required by state law, forcing the ballot board to review most of the more than 7,000 provisional ballots in just 24 hours.

2. Harding complained that tax office employees altered official election records with white-out and corrective tape in violation of federal law. Sworn depositions later revealed that Ed Johnson had personally reviewed, and possibly changed, the recommendations of career staff regarding the counting of provisional ballots that included the names of Johnson’s Republican clients.

3. As reported by KHOU-TV and the Houston Chronicle last October, 11,350 timely voter registration applications were not processed in time to be put on the voter rolls by the first day of early voting in 2008, as required by state law, a problem not experienced in any other Texas county.

4. During the 2008 election cycle, Harris County rejected almost 70,000 voter registration applications. In Dallas County, where applications are processed by nonpartisan election officials, only 1,183 applications were rejected. Harris County has refused to make the database that tracks these rejected applications available for inspection.

5. During the same time period, Harris County removed 200,000 names — or 10 percent of the county’s voters — from the voter registration list for unknown reasons.

6. Additional evidence reveals that voter registration applicants who applied months before the election did not receive letters notifying them of their rejection status or asking for more information until Election Day or days after, another violation of state law that may have denied many the right to vote.

These problems are not “frivolous” matters.

Just thought I’d mention that the Democrats have had pretty good luck in recent years with election-related lawsuits. It was a lawsuit filed by several losing candidates after the 2002 election that led to the revelations about campaign finance violations by TAB and TRMPAC, which in turn led to a bunch of indictments, some convictions, and the eventual downfall of Tom DeLay. It was another Democratic lawsuit after DeLay’s resignation and withdrawal from the ballot in 2006 that forced the Republicans to run a write-in candidate in that election. That lawsuit was, naturally, declared “frivolous” by Republican Party of Texas Chair Tina Benkiser. That doesn’t mean this one’s a winner as well, but all things considered I like our odds.

Saturday video break: Who are you working for, Dwayne?

I know I’ve been using these for mostly silly and/or amusing music videos, but given recent developments, I figured this was a good fit for the day.

Now we just need someone to do something similar for Leo Vasquez.

Leo’s response

Here, for the record, is Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez’s response to the Ed Johnson business. Basically, he denies everything, admits to nothing, and makes counter-accusations, certainly a time-honored technique when under attack. I’ll stipulate that the charges against Ed Johnson are being made by partisan groups. I find it rather admirable that Vasquez is so willing to go to bat for an employee like this. But man, if he can’t or won’t see how much this looks like a conflict of interest, I don’t know what to say. The voters will sort it out next year, I guess. I think Campos is right that swing voters will see this for what it is. I just hope the resources to make sure they’re aware of it are there.

Chron opines on Ed Johnson

The Chron follows up its story on Ed Johnson, the local GOP’s ace in the hole in the Tax Assessor’s office, with an editorial that recaps the story and gently chides Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez.

Given the recent history of his office, perhaps it’s not surprising that Vasquez would see nothing amiss in having a staffer responsible for voter registration involved in partisan campaign work on the side.

When the tax assessor stands for re-election next year, voters will have the opportunity to express their own views of such activities. In the meantime, Vasquez should order Johnson to choose between his public and private gigs and eliminate the appearance of a conflict of interest.

I think the Tax Assessor’s office deserves no benefit of the doubt, and as such Johnson should be let go, but making him choose between one job and the other would be minimally acceptable. For sure, the current setup cannot continue. It’s up to you, Leo – do you want to run a clean office or not?

What about Dwayne?

The Lone Star Project turns its attention to Ed Johnson‘s partner, State Rep. Dwayne Bohac.

[Friday], the Lone Star Project formally submitted open records requests of Dwayne Bohac, Tax Assessor Collector Leo Vasquez, Harris County DA Pat Lykos -a CDS client, and others. Given the refusal of Harris County Republican officials and Dwayne Bohac to respond responsibly to media inquiries about Ed Johnson, they must be compelled to produce records before evidence is destroyed or otherwise withheld from public or legal scrutiny.

[…]

To this point, Dwayne Bohac has said nothing to the press about his company, his activities or his employees, despite all being implicated in the scandal.  Bohac owes Harris County voters answers to at least the following questions.

Why does Bohac only sell to Harris County campaigns?
CDS claims to sell voter lists and software services, which should be applicable all over the state.  However, CDS only sells to Republican campaigns in Harris County. Is this because Ed Johnson is only available to help in Harris County?

What Harris County voter information has Bohac and Johnson obtained?
The Campaign Data Systems’ website claimed that, “Most data providers allow you to target using only registered voter data and voter history. However, CDS gives you two additional lists—drivers license data and property tax records.” (See the website) Ed Johnson’s position the with the Harris County Tax Assessor Collector, who oversees the voter registration department, may give him access to property tax data, vehicle registration data and other information in addition to the voter data for which he has full access. Bohac should tell Harris County residents what public data he has obtained and where he obtained it.

Why is Dwayne Bohac routing money through Decide Consulting?
Dwayne Bohac has never paid Campaign Data Systems from his campaign account.   Instead, he has suspiciously paid Decide Consulting more than $27,000 since 2004. Decide Consulting was founded by another Bohac business partner, David Moise.  This firm is described as a, “software management and consulting business.” Decide has no other political business listed on its website or on Texas Ethics Commission filings. These payments may be an effort by Bohac to steer profits to his business and business associates, while circumventing Texas Ethics Opinion 35 which prohibits payments to a business when the candidate owns more than a 10% stake for more than actual expenditures. As the opinion says, “the business may not make any profit on such a transaction.”

Good questions. I wonder when someone other than Pat “Conflict? What conflict?” Lykos or Leo Vasquez’s spokesperson will answer any of them. Campos has more.

Chron reports on Ed Johnson

Here’s their story about Ed Johnson and his questionable side venture as a Republican consultant. It doesn’t add much to what we already know, but it does get some local reaction, including from Johnson’s boss, Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez.

Leo Vasquez, Harris County tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, issued a statement that dismissed complaints that Johnson’s job, which can include approving or rejecting voter applications, conflicts with his side business.

“Ed Johnson is an honorable man,” Vasquez said. “It is slanderous and absolutely reprehensible to suggest without evidence that he is involved in inappropriate activity with regard to voter registration in Harris County.”

Vasquez’s spokesman, Fred King, said Johnson has been in this type of business since the mid-1990s, so his involvement in voter registration data was no secret.

“His knowledge of compiling lists and his programming expertise are the reasons Paul Bettencourt (Vasquez’s predecessor) hired him,” King said. “Vasquez may have heard of Ed’s outside business before taking office since many candidates and campaign workers knew of it.”

If it weren’t for the fact that Bettencourt did so much, especially in recent years, to politicize the Tax Assessor’s office, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. If it weren’t for the fact that there had been so many complaints, especially last year, about the way voter registration forms and provisional ballots were being handled, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. If it weren’t for the fact that Johnson had spent so much time parroting Republican fairy tales about the need for voter ID legislation in testimony before the Lege, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. Put it all together, though, and you come to the inescapable conclusion that Johnson’s moonlighting is in fact a big deal. Vasquez needs to get his head out of the sand about it.

Though it should be noted that he’s not the only Republican elected official doing the ostrich thing:

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ campaign paid more than $7,000 last year to CDS. She said late Wednesday her campaign hired CDS for targeted campaign mailers but she did not know about Johnson’s job with the county.

She insisted she saw no compromise of the elections office’s mission.

“I saw no conflict,” Lykos said.

So if it turns out that one of your ADAs has a side gig with a jury consultant who does a lot of work for criminal defense attorneys, that’ll be all right with you, Pat? I’m just checking.

More on Ed Johnson

As expected, the Lone Star Project adds quite a bit to the Ed Johnson story from yesterday. Boy, do they ever.

[Johnson] is a paid Republican campaign consultant. His company, Campaign Data Systems (CDS), has numerous Harris County Republican candidate as clients, including the Conservative Republicans of Harris County PAC, Senator Dan Patrick, and Congressman Michael McCaul. Republican State Representative Dwayne Bohac (HD 138) is also a principal owner of CDS. Johnson and Bohac are both listed on the Articles of Organization and on the CDS website as a person to contact. It is unacceptable that a county employee with unimpeded access to Voter Registration records, who can grant or deny the ability to vote to an individual, also works as a partisan political consultant.

Johnson Reviews Ballots for Harris County Races

Ed Johnson is a high-level employee in the Harris County voter registration department. In sworn testimony he has been described as, “pretty much the one that does everything.” (Deposition of Elizabeth Hernandez. Clerk/Processor)

It was also revealed that Johnson reviews provisional ballots in Harris County. Michelle Dixon, a 12 year veteran of the voter registration department said under oath that Johnson “opens the sealed envelopes of provisional ballot affidavits.” 17 year employee Kim Shoemaker said that “Ed Johnson will stand over us” during provisional ballot review. (Depositions of Michelle Dixon and Kim Shoemaker). The Houston Chronicle reported that white out was used on many provisional ballots before delivery to the Ballot Board. (Houston Chronicle, 11/12/08) Dixon also said that Johnson was in charge of purging voters from the system. (Depositions of Michelle Dixon)

You can see more excerpts from the depositions here; all such links are PDFs. This ought to be a dumb question, but does anyone really think that it’s okay for a person who works for candidates and interest groups of one political party to have that kind of influence over provisional ballots and the voter rolls? How is this not a massive conflict of interest? I know, another dumb question.

I don’t expect Johnson or anyone else in the Tax Assessor’s office, or the County Clerk’s office for that matter, to be apolitical. These are elected offices, and while the tasks they perform are clerical and should be done in a professional and nonpartisan manner, it’s fine and dandy for those tasks to be done by people who supported those elected officials. But being on the payroll of candidates and other political interests that depend on that job is going way too far. What Johnson is doing is wrong. What Dwayne Bohac did in not disclosing his business relationship with Johnson before he testified in Austin is wrong. What Leo Vasquez, and Paul Bettencourt before him, did in turning a blind eye to this (or worse, approving of it) is wrong. Johnson can work in the Tax Assessor’s office, or he can work for CDS. He can’t do both. EoW has more.

Oh, and by the way, you might notice that the links to the CDS company profile, and indeed to its home page are now 404’ing. I don’t know if this is a crude attempt to cover tracks or not, but there’s always Google cache when you need it. Nice try, Dwayne.

Ed Johnson’s conflict of interest

As you know, there was a lawsuit filed against Paul Bettencourt and the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office over allegations of illegal mishandling of provisional ballots in the past November election. That suit was later expanded to include allegations of voter disenfranchisement by Bettencourt’s office. According to KHOU, some mighty interesting facts have come out so far in the deposition phase.

“This is as blatant a case of election corruption that I have seen,” said Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project, a Democrat activist group.

The Lone Star Project’s complaint revolves around Ed Johnson.

Johnson is the associate voter registrar at the Harris County Tax Assessor Collectors office, but according to state documents, that’s just his day job. Johnson is also a paid director of a small company that provides voter data to Republican candidates for office. That company, Campaign Data Systems, billed at least $140,000 in 2008.

Campaign Data Systems happens to be owned by Republican State Rep. Dwayne Bohac, who also happens to be one of the big pushers of voter ID bills. Johnson testified before the Senate about supposed instances of vote fraud. He tells the Republicans what they want to hear in the guise of a nonpartisan election official, while being on their payroll. Nice little scam they’ve got going there, no? I think we all have a better idea now why State Reps. Garnet Coleman and Ana Hernandez called for appointed Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez’s resignation over Johnson’s (and George Hammerlein’s) testimony, and it makes Vasquez’s response look that much weaker.

I’m sure the Lone Star Project will have plenty more to say on this soon, and I’m looking forward to it. In the meantime, I’m thinking the campaign ads against Vasquez next year are going to write themselves. This is going to be fun.