By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A sudden burst of democratic fervor appears to have gripped the homeless population of Dallas, some of whom felt an urge this past weekend to rush to the polls and cast ballots in the contentious District 2 city council race between businesswoman Brenda Reyes and Dallas lawyer John Loza.
Most of those casting early ballots in the election were voting for pork. Literally. The Bunkhaus--a labor hall at 1818 South Ervay Street--was offering day workers and homeless people pork chop sandwiches or $3 cash to go to the polls and vote.
To make things easier, the Bunkhaus also provided its clients with valid voter registration cards, and arranged free van rides to the nearest polling place.
Even people walking by the building--including two Dallas Observer reporters--were offered $3 if they wanted to get in on the action.
Cynics may wonder if the downtrodden voters were expected to express their gratitude by casting ballots for a particular candidate. Not so, claimed Keith Gray, a Bunkhaus volunteer whom the Observer encountered on Sunday standing outside the Bunkhaus drinking a beer and holding a stack of about 150 voter registration cards.
But, it turns out, several managers and employees affiliated with the Bunkhaus are supporting Brenda Reyes, and have each contributed the legal maximum to her campaign. There used to be a Reyes campaign sign outside the building. And curiously, Reyes' name was the only one that rang a bell among the few men interviewed by the Observer who had any familiarity with the candidates in the District 2 race. One man bluntly stated that he had been told to vote for Reyes in exchange for a pork sandwich.
There were no indications that Reyes was involved in, or aware of, the ambitious get-out-the-vote effort apparently being conducted on her behalf. But Loza supporters charge that the labor hall is being used to churn votes for Reyes. On Friday, the Loza campaign notified Dallas County elections administrator Bruce Sherbet that it was officially challenging all ballots cast by voters who list their address as 1818 South Ervay.
The building is home to the Bunkhaus--a hotel that offers beds for $6 a night and sells beer for $1 a can--and Pacesetters Personnel Service Inc., a day labor service that brokers jobs for workers and takes a cut of the pay. The labor hall has surfaced before in controversies over allegations of vote fraud, specifically during the last District 2 council race.
County records show that at least 183 voters on the rolls list the Bunkhaus as their address. According to Sherbet, 18 votes were cast in the District 2 race just this weekend by people using the 1818 South Ervay address.
Sherbet says he has forwarded Loza's complaint to the Dallas County District Attorney's office for investigation, and said he would monitor voting from the labor hall address.
When reached by telephone Monday, Sherbet said he was intrigued to learn from the Observer that labor hall "volunteer" Gray offered two Observer reporters $3 cash to vote on Sunday, and that one homeless voter was given two different voter registration cards by a Bunkhaus worker.
Sherbet was also surprised to hear that a Reyes campaign contributor--who also happens to be the labor hall's general manager--told the Observer that he gave an employee $1,000 so the employee could contribute it to the Reyes campaign. Current and former employees of the labor hall have contributed at least $4,000 to the Reyes campaign, according to a copy of Reyes' campaign contributions. (Reyes did not return phone calls from the Observer, and has stated in the past that she will not grant interviews to this paper.)
"What you've described to me sounds like some blatant violations of the law and voter fraud," Sherbet says. "I think this definitely needs to be looked into. It sounds to me that you have some hard evidence."
The evidence was not hard to find. In fact, most of it was standing on the sidewalk in front of 1818 South Ervay this past weekend.
The building housing the Bunkhaus and Pacesetters Personnel Services Inc. stands at the corner of Ervay and Hickory Streets, just south of the Farmer's Market. Its parking lot is encircled by a chainlink fence topped with razor wire. On the back of the building, a large white sign with red letters encourages people to "Register to vote right here. Be sure you have friends at city hall."
Shortly after noon on Sunday, a man was toting a blue cooler and several cases of Miller High Life beer into the Bunkhaus. Outside, 16-ounce can of Schlitz Malt Liquor in hand, Keith Gray took his post at the Bunkhaus front door. In his free hand, Gray held about 150 voter registration cards, a clipboard, and a torn paperback copy of Stan Lee's Dunn's Conundrum.
"Are you folks registered to vote? We pay $3 cash for everyone who votes," said Gray, gulping a swig of the Bull.
Gray is the worker bee of the Bunkhaus voting machine. His job is to take the voter registration cards and match them up with the homeless men and day workers who come and go on South Ervay.
Planting the seeds of participatory democracy is hard work, Gray says. Getting these people to vote is like pulling teeth--especially when an NBA playoff game is on, and no one wants to leave the TV room. Still, by early afternoon Sunday, he had six names on his clipboard.
Initially, Gray was delighted to explain exactly what he was doing. A few weeks back, he said, the Bunkhaus held a voter registration drive, encouraging as many of its clients as possible to fill out cards listing the 1818 South Ervay address. This weekend, Gray's job was to make sure as many of those people as possible got their cards and were driven to the polls.
Since voter apathy runs a bit high among this group, Gray said, the $3 and pork sandwiches were a way of helping potential voters see tangible value in exercising their franchise.
"We give them an incentive, sandwiches, because they're really not concerned with voting," Gray says. And how do these voters--many of whom don't even know who is running in the council race--pick the candidate they will vote for? Gray says the homeless are more politically astute than they are given credit for. Many of them see the news on TV in the day room, or listen to the radio, he says.
"I'm a half-way educated man, and what it is, people think we're trying to falsify--trying to get people to vote one way or the other," Gray says. That, he says, is absolutely not true.
But it is true that the only candidate Gray knows by name is Brenda Reyes. That's because she recently came to the neighborhood, accompanied by a Hispanic man driving a red Chevy pickup truck. The man Gray describes seems to fit the description of Roberto Arredondo, a Reyes campaign worker.
Gray says he was very impressed by Reyes and so, too, were others--like the man who joined Gray at the front door during our conversation. The man, who had a blue bandanna wrapped around his head, confirmed that he's a registered voter, but he paused when Gray asked him who's running for city council. "Reyes somebody," he said, slowly tugging at the bandanna on his head, as if it might help jog his memory.
It's not surprising that the Reyes name would ring a bell at the Bunkhaus and Pacesetter Personnel Services Inc. After all, two current Pacesetter employees have contributed $1,000 each to Reyes, and are openly voicing their support for her candidacy. Just a while back, they had a Reyes sign posted in front of the building, says Paul Moreno, who is Pacesetter's general manager and one of the employees who gave Reyes $1,000.
Seated behind his desk on Monday morning, Moreno paused when asked if he contributed to the Reyes campaign. When reminded that his name and that of his assistant, Eric Veblen, clearly show up on the Reyes campaign disclosures as donating $1,000 each, the perplexed look on Moreno's face suddenly disappeared.
"I gave Eric a check," Moreno says hastily.
A check? You gave your employee a check for $1,000 to be used as a campaign contribution?
"Yes," Moreno says, adding that the gesture was "no big deal."
But Dallas County's Sherbet says that the gesture could be a very big deal if the Texas Ethics Commission finds out about it. Under state law, companies cannot contribute to political campaigns directly, and individual contributors are limited to $1,000 a piece. Since Moreno gave $1,000 to Reyes himself, he can't give another $1,000 through an employee.
"That would be a violation [of state law] without a doubt...It's like me giving $2,000 under false premises," Sherbet says. "You can't give somebody money and say 'under your name contribute this money.'"
Texas Ethics Commission general counsel Karen Lundquist concurs with Sherbet's assessment. "You can't hide the person who is really making the contribution," says Lundquist, who adds that she can't comment on this particular incident because she doesn't have the facts of the case.
Under state law, making a hidden contribution is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to $4,000 in fines and/or up to a year in jail, Lundquist says. A corporate contribution is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years, but no less than two years in jail and/or up to a $10,000 fine.
Moreno and Veblen--who could not be reached for comment--are not the only ones affiliated with the labor hall who have contributed generously to Reyes' campaign. George and Elizabeth Boehme of Houston also each gave Reyes $1,000. Boehme is the same man who in 1993 was accused of double-registering day laborers to vote for Chris Luna in District 2. At the time, Boehme was employed by Industrial Labor Services, Inc., which operated out of the Bunkhaus.
Jack Borden, who lost to Luna in the 1993 election, filed a complaint with the Dallas County Elections Department over the labor hall voting, but Sherbet says the complaint went nowhere.
Reached at his home in Houston--located, ironically, on Robinhood Lane--Boehme said he no longer has any affiliation with Industrial Labor Services, Inc. or the Bunkhaus.
"I have absolutely nothing to do with the Bunkhaus and haven't walked in the Bunkhaus or been over at 1818 South Ervay in years," says Boehme. Boehme says that Borden's 1993 complaint had no merit. "In that particular case where he was alleging that we were trying to get out the vote for Luna, he was wrong. And it wasn't that I wouldn't have done that, 'cause I would have. And the reason I didn't is because [Borden] was not a significant threat."
When asked why he and his wife contributed so much to Brenda Reyes, Boehme's answer was quite simple.
"Domingo Garcia asked me to," he says, referring to State Rep. Domingo Garcia (D-Dallas), who has also contributed to Reyes' campaign. Reyes, in fact, has retained Garcia to represent her amid legal questions about whether she moved into District 2 in time to qualify for the election.
Interestingly, Moreno also says he contributed to Reyes because Garcia told him to. Moreno also says he finds Reyes to be an attractive candidate. Asked why so many people were giving Reyes money--and were also affiliated with the labor hall--Garcia said he wasn't aware of the sudden surge of homeless voting and had no comment.
"These allegations coming the week before the election are pretty routine," he says. "Whether there's merit or no merit to those I don't know."
Moreno says there is nothing fishy about the get-out-the-vote campaign at the Bunkhaus. Because so many people stay at the hall from time to time, he says, a lot of people use it as their address when registering to vote. "It's not one of those tombstone-type deals. These people are all living, breathing, working people who can vote," Moreno says. "We are supporting Brenda Reyes. That's our candidate, but we aren't in the booth with these guys. We can't tell 'em who to vote for."
The confused look returned to Moreno's face when he was asked why a labor hall representative was offering passersby $3 and pork sandwiches to vote on Sunday.
"That's news to me," Moreno says. Maybe, Moreno says, Gray just went a little overboard in his democratic fervor.
"I think what we had was a guy who was overzealous. He's screwing things up by being an idiot," Moreno says, adding that he would never condone any illegal activity.
"I'm not that stupid," Moreno says. "You know what I mean? That's against the law."
Moreno says he is offering people free rides to the polls, but says that the labor hall always gives away about 400 baloney sandwiches, on white or wheat bread, a day. "That's every day," he says. "It's not something we do every now and then."
But some men said they don't remember seeing a lot of pork chop sandwiches being offered around the Bunkhaus--except during this latest get-out-the-vote drive. One man standing outside the Bunkhaus Sunday said the pork chop sandwich deal was a bunch of baloney. The man, who didn't want to give his name, says he was told he'd get a pork chop dinner if he voted. He registered to vote, but hasn't gotten his card yet.
But that didn't stop Gray from trying to get him to the polls, he says.
"He [Gray] tried to get me to go down the other day. I said I didn't have a card. He said, 'well, that's OK. I'll get you a card,' and I said 'no,'" the man says. "Ain't none of it straight-up. They promise you a pork chop dinner, and you get a pork chop sandwich."
Another man who was offered a bogus voter registration card, however, says he took it, went to the polls, and voted for Reyes like he was told. Then he got his sandwich.
The man, who says he is Jon Michael Christian, held two voter registration cards in one hand Saturday afternoon while seated inside the living room of Loza volunteer Larry Wheat, who lives just a few blocks away from the Bunkhaus. In the other hand, Christian held a white paper sack. In it was one rather skanky-looking pork chop wrapped in shriveled lettuce and stuffed between a pair of bone-white slices of bread.
The first registration card, certification number 2642974, was issued for a Jon Michael Christian, 30, who lists his address at 1818 South Ervay. The second card, certification number 2216760, was issued for an Anthony Richard Boyer, 41, who lists the same address.
Christian says he's been staying at the Bunkhaus for about eight weeks, paying the $6-a-night fee for the bunk and working temporary construction jobs during the day. The 30-ish looking man says he was sitting in the Bunkhaus TV room at noon on Saturday when another man gave him a voter registration card and asked him if he wanted to go to the polls that day. Christian said he would.
"When we first got in the van, he told us who to vote for. He said number 5--Brenda Reyes," Christian says. "He said she was the one who was going to keep the Bunkhaus open."
When the van arrived at the Martin Luther King Center, Christian says he stuffed his voter registration card in his pocket and told the van driver that he lost it. At that point, he says, the driver gave him Boyer's card. Even though he knows he broke the law, Christian says he used Boyer's card to cast his vote because he was afraid to say anything.
"I couldn't do anything else. He [the driver] was right behind me. I didn't want to get caught," he says, referring to the driver and not the election judge. "It was either break the law or let them know something was up."
After he voted, Christian says, he returned to the van and the driver gave him the sandwich, which, he adds, he doesn't intend to eat.
So how did Christian, if that's who he really is, wind up in the living room of Loza supporter Larry Wheat on Saturday afternoon?
Wheat says he went to the Bunkhaus several weeks ago and hired Christian and several other workers to help him stuff campaign envelopes for Loza and to complete other odd jobs around the house.
Because people like Boehme and Moreno showed up on the list of Reyes campaign contributors, Wheat says, the Loza campaign immediately feared that history would repeat itself in this election. So, Wheat says, he asked Christian to call him if anyone at the Bunkhaus asked him to vote.
"What I told him was that if they asked for his voter registration card not to give it to them. He thought I meant not to use his voter registration card," says Wheat, who adds that he didn't think Christian would actually use someone else's card to vote.
Not surprisingly, Loza says he's outraged by the activities going on at the labor hall this weekend and renewed his request that the District Attorney's office investigate.
Loza says he didn't know who Christian was until Saturday afternoon, after the voting incident took place. Despite the odd circumstances that inspired Christian to cast an illegal vote, Loza says he doesn't think it reflects badly on his campaign.
"I mean it was the people from the labor hall who offered him a voter registration card," Loza says. "They basically did wrong, and there's no getting around that.