A key witness was barred from testifying during the first day of La Joya ISD’s election contest Wednesday despite repeated requests from the attorney who filed the lawsuit.
Attorney Javier Peña represents The Diamond Pack – which includes Victoria Cantu, Irma Linda Villarreal-Veloz and Fernando Torres. In the 2014 election, the three candidates lost to three incumbents on La Joya Independent School District’s school board, dubbed Team Liberty – Johnn Alaniz, Juan Jose “J.J.” Garza and Juan Jose “J.J.” Peña.
The election contest, filed days after the November election, alleges a politiquera, on behalf of Team Liberty paid two Mission postal workers for lists of residents in the area who receive mail-in ballots. The lawsuit states there is audio of one of the mailmen giving the list to a politiquera as well as video of the same mailman at Team Liberty headquarters. The lawsuit also alleges voters were improperly assisted at the polling locations.
After opening statements, Javier Peña asked to put Yolanda Hidrogo on the stand, but Gilberto Hinojosa, representing Team Liberty, objected, stating he wasn’t given Hidrogo’s address prior to the hearing, so he couldn’t talk to the witness prior to Wednesday. Peña argued that Hidrogo was paid by Team Liberty, so they should know how to find her.
“The reason the address is important is because I’m entitled to go find that witness and question that witness,” Hinojosa said.
Visiting judge J. Bonner Dorsey sided with Hinojosa, admonishing Peña for not providing the information.
But after a two-hour lunch break, Peña came back and asked to place Hidrogo on the stand once again, stating that her address was listed on a subpoena issued Tuesday, the day before the hearing. Dorsey again refused to allow Hidrogo to take the stand. For potential appeals purposes, Peña asked to make a statement on Hidrogo’s connections to members of Team Liberty, which Dorsey allowed.
Hidrogo, Peña said, had multiple meetings with the Team Liberty candidates and witnessed interaction between the candidates and the mailmen, some of which she caught on audio and video recordings.
“She would also testify that she assisted voters improperly, taking mail-in ballots, turning in these mail-in ballots, filling out these mail-in ballots – that she was paid for this in cash by the campaign that she was working on,” Peña said.
Now, Peña said, Hidrogo is working with federal agents in an investigation into “how this corrupt system of manipulating the votes operates.”
The first witness to actually take the stand was Jose Gilberto Ruiz, who Peña said during a pre-trial hearing last week told an investigator working for Peña that Ruiz assisted school employees in the voting booth, telling them, “Vote for your bosses.”
Hinojosa also objected to Ruiz’s testimony, stating Peña also had not provided Ruiz’s address. Dorsey, who ruled that Peña could add Ruiz as a witness during the pretrial hearing last week, overruled the objection.
When Ruiz took the stand, he denied doing anything illegal, stating he assisted four or five voters who requested help at La Joya’s youth center. Ruiz said he followed procedure, waiting outside while the voter asked election workers if they could get assistance from him. Ruiz said he signed his name on voter logs as Jose Hernandez, however, because that’s his legal name.
He told the people he assisted the name of both candidates in all three races and did not tell them whom to vote for, Ruiz testified.
Peña pulled out printouts of a Facebook conversation between Ruiz and someone with the screenname Cruz A. Rios. In the conversation, Ruiz stated he gave voters pushcards for Team Liberty, and he was later paid $60 by Garza.
Ruiz receives disability benefits, and during his testimony, Peña emphasized that Garza, while a La Joya ISD board member, is also executive director of the La Joya Housing Authority, which provides Ruiz funding for Section 8 housing. Peña said, in effect, Garza is Ruiz’s landlord.
At the beginning of his testimony, Ruiz said his Facebook account was hacked. He didn’t know anything about the conversation, but after the lunch break, Peña asked him if he wanted to change his testimony.
“On this past testimony that I said my Facebook was hacked, that’s not true,” Ruiz confessed. “I did it. The statements are true.”
“Did anyone tell you to answer a certain way?” Peña asked.
“No. I changed my mind because I don’t want to lose my Social Security benefits and I don’t want to be in a state jail,” Ruiz responded.
He admitted he received payment from Garza for helping at the party’s campsite outside the polling location during early voting and on Election Day. He also said he’d received payment for work from La Joya Mayor Fito Salinas, who Ruiz said also is a Team Liberty supporter.
But Ruiz held firm on denying comments Peña said Ruiz gave to Peña’s investigator, Robert Caples, two weeks ago, specifically that Ruiz assisted school district employees in the voting booth. He also said he did not tell them they needed to vote for their bosses. Ruiz testified that he did not know if his interview with Caples was recorded.
Peña asked to submit the audio to the court in order to impeach Ruiz’s testimony, but Hinojosa objected, stating that he requested all audio recordings that would be used in the trial, and he did not receive it. He accused Peña of attempting to submit new evidence “under the guise of impeachment.” Peña argued he didn’t know he would need it because he didn’t know Ruiz would deny what he allegedly told Caples.
Dorsey refused to allow the audio, though he previously allowed Peña to submit two Facebook printouts over Hinojosa’s same objections.
Also taking the stand Wednesday was one of the mailmen, Noe Olvera, accused of selling lists of addresses of voters who receive mail-in ballots.
Hinojosa protested Olvera’s testimony, stating that the allegations involving the mailmen mostly involve the Mission and sheriff election. And Ricardo Salinas, attorney for Olvera said, “I think my client has been suspended from his current employment right now, and there is an ongoing investigation right now that could lead to some kind of criminal complaint.
“I think it would be hard for me to recommend that he testify.”
Peña argued that asserting the Fifth Amendment does not mean the witness doesn’t have to at least take the stand, and Olvera was allowed to testify.
As Peña ran through a list of questions, Olvera’s attorney, Ricardo Salinas stood behind him, tapping him on the shoulder and whispering to him, prompting him to answer repeatedly with, “Under the advice of my lawyer, I will not answer that question under my Fifth Amendment right.”
Olvera did state that he is a mailman in Mission who has been on paid administrative leave since Nov. 17.
He did not answer whether he knew Johnn Alaniz, whether he worked in polling locations for Team Liberty or if he knew Hidrogo. Olvera also said he could not identify two documents filed with handwritten addresses that Peña alleged Olvera gave to Hidrogo.
J.J. Peña sat on the first row in the audience through most of the hearing, but left minutes before Javier Peña, no relation, asked to call him to the stand. Javier Peña asked that a deputy be sent to find the school board member, but Hinojosa objected, saying J.J. Peña had not been subpoenaed. Javier Peña argued as a defendant, J.J. Peña and the others should be present to defend themselves.
“I’m not going to do that,” Dorsey said to Javier Peña’s request to send a deputy. And later, when Peña surmised that J.J. Peña left to avoid having to testify, Dorsey said, “Well, maybe he’ll return.”
Alaniz and Garza also were called, and they, too, were absent.
The hearing ended with testimony from Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon, who verified documents requested from the county. Ramon also was asked to bring in the 4,000 mail-in ballots submitted in the 2014 election Thursday morning.
Ramon also testified that 587 mail-in ballots were requested in La Joya ISD’s election and 373 were counted. She also stated it’s up to the voters themselves to decide to whether they are unable to vote without assistance.
“Federal law does not allow for a poll worker to make a determination as to the need of the voter,” Ramon said.
After Ramon’s testimony, the court recessed until Thursday morning, after the Progress Times’ print deadline.
During last week’s pretrial hearing Dorsey recalled overseeing an election contest from La Joya ISD two years ago. In that case, he ruled against the plaintiffs. In election contests, they must show clear and convincing evidence, Dorsey said, that votes were erroneously counted or erroneously thrown out, violating election code.
“The burden of proof is high for the plaintiffs,” Dorsey said.