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Mayor O’caña takes the witness stand on third day of Mission election trial

Mission Mayor Armando “Doc” O’caña spent Wednesday on the witness stand.

Spectators packed the Hidalgo County courtroom to watch attorney Rick Salinas — the son of former Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas — question O’caña about the 2018 mayoral campaign.

20180926 OcanaStandHe asked O’caña what “scheme” and “conspiracy” mean. He posed hypotheticals about how unscrupulous candidates might manipulate elections. And he demanded details about the company that hired campaign workers for O’caña.

“Now the question then becomes: How high up the chain does it go?” Salinas said.

After four hours on the witness stand, the answer remained fuzzy.

The lawsuit pits Beto Salinas, who governed Mission for two decades, against O’caña.

Beto Salinas fell just three votes short of victory in May, when he faced O’caña and another candidate. O’caña narrowly won the runoff in June.

Beto Salinas, though, claimed bribery, illegal voting and mail-in ballot shenanigans marred the mayoral runoff and requested a new election.

Both men hired high-powered lawyers to handle the case.

Rick Salinas, a prominent criminal defense attorney, assembled a legal team that includes election law experts from San Antonio. O’caña is represented by his niece, Patty O’caña-Olivarez, and Brownsville-based attorney Gilberto Hinojosa, who heads the Texas Democratic Party.

State District Judge J. Bonner Dorsey, who retired from the 13th Court of Appeals, will determine whether or not Mission holds a new mayoral election.

On Monday and Tuesday, witnesses testified about campaign workers who offered cash for votes and political operatives who manipulated mail-in ballots.

Rick Salinas put O’caña on the witness stand Wednesday, attempting to link him to illegal activity.

After he dispensed with the definitions, Rick Salinas started asking hypothetical questions about illegal voting.

“And in some situations, depending on how far you’re willing to go — right, you’ve heard of this in the past — some people will even offer to pay people to vote,” Rick Salinas said.

“That’s correct, I’ve heard it from both sides of the—” O’caña said before Rick Salinas interrupted him.

“Objection,” Rick Salinas said. “Non-responsive.”

Rick Salinas also walked O’caña through his campaign finance reports, asking about donors.

O’caña accepted donations from Peñitas City Manager Omar Romero, who owns a company called Government Asset Services; Peñitas Chief of Staff Andy Morales, who owns a company called RGV Redlight; and the Hidalgo County Emergency Services Foundation, an ambulance company owned by businessman Kenneth Ponce.

While the donations linked O’caña to supporters of Team L1berty, the now-defunct western Hidalgo County political party, the significance of that connection remained unclear.

Rick Salinas also mentioned Richard LeFevre, an engineer who owns Mercedes-based LeFevre Engineering & Management Consulting. He donated $500 to the O’caña campaign in March.

“Is this the same Mr. LeFevre that’s in involved in the project out of Weslaco?” Rick Salinas said, apparently referring to the Weslaco water treatment plant. “Do you know whether or not he had anything to do with the water project out of Weslaco, Texas?”

O’caña said he worked with LeFevre in Peñitas, but didn’t know him very well.

Rick Salinas didn’t explain why he considered the Weslaco water treatment plant significant.

After dissecting the donations, Rick Salinas shifted focus to the mayor’s niece, Veronica O’caña, who provided campaign services under the name VO Consulting.

The campaign paid VO Consulting thousands for political work but never signed a contract or requested receipts, O’caña said, adding that he trusted his niece.

Rick Salinas claims the campaign created VO Consulting to distance O’caña from illegal activity.

“He lost the state district court judge’s race against my ex-wife. He lost the school board race. They got desperate,” Rick Salinas said in an interview. “They couldn’t afford to lose another (expletive) race. And obviously members of Patty O’caña’s family were the ones that took control of the (expletive) election.”

Rick Salinas said he believes the O’caña family, desperate to win the mayoral runoff, resorted to dirty tricks.

“Obviously what they did was they created this bogus company to try to distance themselves from whatever it was that VO was doing,” Rick Salinas said.

Courtroom testimony about donors and hypothetical questions about corruption, however, didn’t support that conclusion, said Hinojosa, the attorney who represents O’caña.

“I don’t think it revealed anything, to be honest with you,” Hinojosa said.

Hiring consultants is a normal part of politics, Hinojosa said, adding that Rick Salinas attempted to make the everyday minutiae of elections seem somehow nefarious.

“I just thought it was Mr. Salinas’ grandstanding,” Hinojosa said. “That’s all it was.”

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