A standing-room-only crowd packed the courtroom Monday morning for the Mission election trial.
Fern McClaugherty — a member of the Objective Watchers of the Legal System, a Hidalgo County watchdog organization — arrived carrying a bright red cushion to make the courtroom benches bearable. Former Mission Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas walked in with his son, attorney Rick Salinas, and a legal team from San Antonio. Mario Lopez, the chief deputy at the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, stopped by to chat. And state District Judge Jaime Tijerina scanned the room, looking for his brother.
“Our first witness was going to be Dr. O’caña, who doesn’t find himself here this morning,” Rick Salinas said. “I was made aware of the fact that he had a passing in his family.”
O’caña defeated Salinas in June, winning about 51 percent of nearly 6,800 ballots cast, according to the Hidalgo County Elections Department. Salinas responded with a lawsuit, claiming that bribery, illegal voting and mail-in ballot fraud marred the results.
State District Judge J. Bonner Dorsey of Corpus Christi scheduled the trial for Monday morning.
“We wanted to call Dr. O’caña first but, obviously, he’s not here,” Rick Salinas said. “I think every effort to conceal what is really going on is being made.”
Alberto O’caña Sr. of Mission, the mayor’s brother, died Sunday in San Antonio.
Rick Salinas suggested delaying the trial for several days, but O’caña’s attorney, Gilberto Hinojosa of Brownsville, wanted to start without him.
“Dr. O’caña is a major witness in this case. He is a party to this lawsuit,” Rick Salinas said. “And he needs to be here.”
Hinojosa, however, disagreed.
“My client is not here today because his brother died yesterday,” Hinojosa said. “But I don’t have to bring him. And I may not bring him.”
After a lengthy back-and-forth, they reached a tentative agreement: The trial would start on schedule and O’caña would appear on Wednesday.
That forced Rick Salinas to reshuffle the witness list and start calling regular voters with questionable ballots. The results were underwhelming.
Jesusa Marin, 76, of Mission, testified that two women took her mail-in ballot. Marin said she didn’t mark the ballot and didn’t know who they picked for mayor.
Concerned about what happened, Marin cancelled the mail-in ballot. Another political operative drove Marin to the polls, where she requested assistance.
Asked whether or not she really needed assistance, which is intended for the illiterate and people who can’t physically mark the ballot, Marin said she didn’t.
Marin said she reads and writes Spanish, and marked the ballot herself.
With her vote under a cloud of suspicion, the judge allowed Hinojosa to ask a sensitive question: Who did she support for mayor?
“Beto Salinas,” Marin said without hesitation.
On her way out, Marin stopped to shake hands with him.
The next witness, a 92-year-old woman named Maria Munoz, arrived in a wheelchair. She provided confusing testimony from the start.
Asked where she’s from, Munoz said she’s originally from Jalisco, Mexico. The man pushing her wheelchair said Munoz lives in Mission.
“And Mrs. Munoz, how long have you lived in Mission?” Rick Salinas said.
“For about 20-something years,” Munoz said through an interpreter.
The man pushing her wheelchair interrupted, clarifying that she’d actually lived in Mission for about 60 years. Rick Salinas asked him to stop interjecting.
Munoz denied that anyone tampered with her mail-in ballot.
After asking her several times, Rick Salinas played snippets from an audio recording. The recording captured Munoz talking with Raul Cruz, an investigator affiliated with the Beto Salinas campaign.
Munoz initially said she couldn’t tell whether or not the recording actually involved her.
Attempting to press forward anyway, Rick Salinas said he anticipated that Munoz would be a hostile witness. The judge disagreed, deadpanning that she might just be a 92-year-old woman.
Munoz left the stand with her ballot intact.
The third voter called to testify on Monday didn’t.
Samuel James Deckard, 27, of Mission had barely taken the stand when Hinojosa objected.
Deckard, who Hinojosa described as a “convicted felon,” planned to testify about accepting a bribe to cast a ballot. Testifying about what happened would expose him to prosecution.
That appeared to catch Deckard off guard.
When the judge warned him about the potential consequences, Deckard abruptly changed his mind.
“I’m not going to do this,” Deckard said.
Deckard declined to speak with the Progress Times. It’s unclear if he will testify Tuesday.
The judge adjourned the hearing, allowing Deckard to find an attorney and make a decision.
“I thought it went well,” Hinojosa said, clearly exhausted, adding that the testimony had cast doubt on just a single ballot — a vote for Beto Salinas.
To win the lawsuit, Beto Salinas must disqualify enough ballots to potentially change the election results.
“You’ve got to disqualify, by clear and convincing evidence, 158 votes,” Hinojosa said, adding that he didn’t think that would happen.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rick Salinas disagreed.
“There’s no magic number. They keep saying that,” Rick Salinas said. “If the court finds that this is an elaborate scheme, the court can do whatever it wants to.”
Proving that fraud marred the mayoral election isn’t just about a power struggle between two politicians, Rick Salinas said. The case deals with fundamental questions about democracy.
“This little monopoly, this little racket that’s going on in Mission?” Rick Salinas said. “Its got to stop.”