A grand jury on March 27 authorized and requested the hiring of an expert to conduct an investigation of voting machines from Hidalgo County’s Democratic primary, said Hidalgo County Criminal District Attorney René Guerra.

Guerra explained that some voters filed complaints with the election department regarding the election, and some candidates raised concerns about the election in a letter to the county judge. Guerra then became involved in his role to “investigate crimes,” and he went to the grand jury for help.

He also has secured impoundment of the voting machines. But one candidate alleges that the criminal investigation is unwarranted.

Guerra wrote in his March 19 application for impoundment of election material, filed in the 398th District Court, “Criminal conduct may have occurred in connection with said election, therefore requiring impoundment … for an investigation and ultimately a determination of whether or not criminal conduct occurred.”

That same day, 398th District Judge Aida Salinas Flores ordered the impoundment of the election machines and other materials from the Democratic primary.

The impounded items include, among other things, all voting terminals, personal electronic ballots, compact flashcards, keys, lists of serial numbers, certain computers, voting data tapes and auxiliary equipment, according to the March 19 order in In Re Impoundment of All Election Materials in Connection With the Hidalgo County, Texas, Democratic Primary March 4, 2014, Election.

Now the 430th District Court grand jury has authorized grand jury funds to pay for the expert and investigation, and it used its authority under the Code of Criminal Procedure to authorize Hidalgo County to enter financial agreements to carry out its request, according to a March 27 letter from grand jury foreperson Evangelina Hernandez.

Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón and Catherine Howard, head of the civil section of the Hidalgo County Criminal D.A.’s Office, each did not return a call seeking comment.

Guerra explained that the grand jury has funds readily available and can move fast in the investigation, which is important in light of the “impending runoff” in May.

“A grand jury fund is available for them to hire investigators or experts to assist in investigations. If you go through a regular criminal process, it would take 45 days to 60 days, which would take too long,” said Guerra. “We want to make sure nobody who is going to go vote in the runoff is going to believe their vote doesn’t count.”

Guerra said he’s assigned “a couple of lawyers” to assist in the grand jury’s investigation. He said he would assist the district court in locating and hiring an expert to do the forensic audit on the machines as soon as possible.

“The examinations will be done openly. They will not be done in secret,” Guerra noted. “Experts will be asked to do this where everybody can observe, if they want to.”

The election code says the materials must be examined in the presence of the judge who called on the election materials to be impounded or in front of a grand jury. That hasn’t been determined yet, said Hidalgo County Assistant D.A. Homer Vasquez.

When asked about potential criminal charges that could come into play, Guerra replied, “I wouldn’t even start to imagine what we could charge. I know there are several statutes that can come into play. We haven’t even looked at that. We just want to make sure we look at the evidence. If the evidence is not there of wrongdoing, then everyone is happy. …If there is wrongdoing there, then we are presented a problem we would have to address.”

In that case, there would probably be a joint state and federal investigation, since the March primary involved both state and federal elected offices, he added.

When asked how Guerra’s office could investigate the matter when the election also involved his own race for D.A., which he lost, Guerra noted that he’s not contesting his own election. He said, “I have no interest in the outcome. … There’s no conflict.”

But at least one candidate argues that Guerra shouldn’t be involved. Jaime J. Munoz, who is competing in the May runoff for justice of the peace Pct. 2 Place 2, filed a plea in intervention and motion to disqualify, arguing there’s no basis for a criminal investigation.

“The information being used to request an impoundment, investigation and election contest clearly fails to allege criminal conduct. At best, the letter and affidavits merely indicate there ‘may’ have been mechanical issues,” Munoz alleges.

But if the court feels there’s a basis for the audit, Munoz argues that the court should disqualify Guerra because he was a candidate and instead appoint a special prosecutor.

Omar Maldonado, who won the Democratic primary for Hidalgo County Court-at-Law No. 8, also filed a plea in intervention on March 31 in the impoundment action.

“Intervenor does not desire the taint of a questionable election result hanging over his head. … Thus, he needs to be able to investigate the machine in question, so that he can determine whether his election was conducted in a proper manner and that he is the people’s representative,” argued Maldonado in his plea.

He also filed a Motion to Allow Participation in Investigation Process on March 31. He argues that the court should permit his own experts to be present when the election machines are inspected and tested and that the court should also permit Maldonado to “independently inspect the machines.”

Maldonado and his attorney, Daniel M.L. Hernandez of the Hernandez Law Firm in Bryan, each didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment before deadline.

Civil Lawsuit

As the investigation unfolds, there are separate civil election contests progressing quickly through the Hidalgo County district courts. Five judicial candidates and one legislative candidate have sued for a new Democratic primary election, alleging that “illegal votes” were counted, because of malfunction or manipulation of the voting machines, and it changed the outcomes of their elections.

San Antonio solo Rolando Rios, who represents four of the six candidates who are suing over the election, said the grand jury took a good step.

“There have been so many allegations of wrongdoing that maybe this will just clear it up, and the voters can be happy if the election was proper; or, if it wasn’t proper, then the courts will take some corrective action,” Rios said.

But Munoz said the county’s elections administrator contends that nothing wrong happened in the election and there’s no evidence of wrongdoing.

“If we had an elections administrator testifying that absolutely nothing happened in the process, that the machines worked, that the system worked as it should have—why then are we having to defend all these election contests? Why then are the election machines being impounded?” asked Munoz. “In my opinion, it’s a complete abuse of our legal system.”