Mission election lawsuit heads to trial Monday

When former Mission Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas filed a lawsuit against his successor, he didn’t pull any punches.

Beto Salinas claimed fraud — bribery, mail-in ballot shenanigans and illegal voting — marred the mayoral runoff in June.

20180511 MissionRunOff“These allegations are salacious. They are devastating,” according to the lawsuit filed by attorney Rick Salinas, the mayor’s son. “And, they will be proven true.”

That proof may emerge Monday, when the trial is scheduled to start.

State District Judge J. Bonner Dorsey of Corpus Christi, a well-respected jurist who retired from the 13th Court of Appeals, will preside over the case.

Mayor Armando “Doc” O’caña won about 51 percent of nearly 6,800 ballots cast during the runoff, according to Hidalgo County Elections Department records. To force a new election, attorneys for Beto Salinas must convince the judge to void 158 votes.

“They got a tough row to hoe,” said attorney Ric Gonzalez of Edinburg, who handled several election lawsuits in Hidalgo.

The litigants, not the attorneys, often make or break an election lawsuit. They guide the attorneys, identifying people who voted illegally or broke state law by harvesting mail-in ballots.

“Usually the big issue is whether someone lives in your community,” Gonzalez said.

However, identifying questionable votes is just half the battle. Tracking voters down, serving them with subpoenas and forcing them to appear in court is a logistical nightmare.

“Even if you serve them, a lot of them don’t show up,” Gonzalez said.

The margin of victory in Mission makes the case especially difficult.

“They have to specifically prove by clear and convincing evidence that a person voted illegally,” said attorney Gilberto Hinojosa of Brownsville, who represents O’caña. “And that’s a high standard.”

Hinojosa said he’s still waiting to see the evidence.

Attempts to schedule an interview with Rick Salinas were unsuccessful. During a hearing last month, he said the case may involve dozens of audio recordings, hundreds of witnesses and thousands of documents.

“We’re just waiting to see what the heck they got,” Hinojosa said.

Before the trial begins, though, the attorneys will argue over whether or not to exclude testimony from an expert witness.

Hinojosa filed a motion to block George J. Korbel, an expert witness hired by Beto Salinas to analyze the election results, from testifying.

After reviewing the runoff election results and information provided by the Beto Salinas campaign, Korbel produced an 18-page report.

Korbel said two facts about the runoff struck him as suspicious: high turnout and Salinas losing, despite coming so close to victory during the first round of voting.

“The likely explanation I see for both the increase in turnout and the reversal of likely political outcome is the acceptance of illegal votes,” according to Korbel’s report.

Korbel also claims the stamps on a bevy of mail-in ballots provide convincing evidence of fraud.

Many envelopes that contained mail-in ballots had 2018 Forever stamps with perforations on both the right and left side. After researching the stamps, Korbel concluded they likely came from a roll.

“In my view it is likely that these ballots were harvested. The question, then, is how many mail-in ballots were harvested in this manner. 357 carrier envelopes have the same stamp and most, if not all, appear to have left and right side perforations,” according to Korbel’s report. “It is possible perhaps even likely that every single one of the carrier envelopes with a 2018 Forever stamp with left and right side perforations was a harvested ballot from the O’Cana campaign.”

Hinojosa wants the judge to exclude Korbel’s testimony, arguing he simply doesn’t possess the knowledge, skill or training to be considered an expert.

“Finally, Mr. Korbel’s opinions are not based upon the underlying facts or data in this case,” according to Hinojosa. “It is based upon unreliable information, and by his own admission, on information or hearsay statements provided to him by Contestant’s lawyers and campaign workers that are not admissible in court.”

The trial is scheduled to start 10 a.m. Monday in the 93rd state District Court.

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