License to Scam

Is anything actually against the law in Texas elections?

The real joke about the vote-fraud law in Texas is the vote-fraud law in Texas. Let me tell you a little story I happen to know about:

A candidate in a recent Dallas election lost the race by a very tight margin after deliberately steering clear of any possible hanky-panky with absentee voters. After losing, the candidate called in advisers and told them they would never make that mistake again.

Next time, hanky-panky city.

Greg Gray, left, and Ted Lyon, the lawyers who got Felicia Pitre's felony charge tossed, say the district attorney is on a political vendetta.
Mark Graham
Greg Gray, left, and Ted Lyon, the lawyers who got Felicia Pitre's felony charge tossed, say the district attorney is on a political vendetta.

Recently I went to the law offices of Ted Lyon to meet with accused vote-fraud artist Felicia Pitre, a legislative aide to southern Dallas state Representative Terri Hodge. Pitre was indicted on a felony charge of tampering with a government document in a school board race a year ago. A few weeks before Pitre and I met, the most serious charges against her were dismissed by state District Judge Gerry Meier. She still faces a misdemeanor charge of illegal "assistance" of a voter.

Pitre's purpose in meeting with me, I think, was to show me that far from being a shifty character she is a solid, middle-class single mom with a sincere interest in local politics. Her lawyer, Greg Gray, wanted me to see that the district attorney had misapplied the law in seeking the indictment in the first place. Ted Lyon, head of the law firm and a former state senator and Democratic stalwart, insisted that the entire vote-fraud effort of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office has been a Republican campaign to suppress minority Democratic votes.

The judge in Pitre's case agreed with Lyon and Gray that state law does not prohibit the specific things the district attorney accused her of doing--crimes of omission in filling out certain documents.

As for Lyon's claim that the district attorney's office is on a political mission to hold down the minority vote, District Attorney Bill Hill did leave himself open to that charge by breaking with past practice. A year ago the public integrity unit of his staff, without a complaint from any citizen, took it upon itself to go after political activists very aggressively on vote-fraud charges in the midst of a campaign season. People with prosecutorial experience have told me they were shocked to see Hill going after people during a campaign. Past practice was always to wait until the conclusion of an election and then act only on citizen complaints of vote fraud in order to avoid any appearance of trying to influence the outcome of an election.

Lyon says Hill went hard on Pitre because she is a minority Democrat from southern Dallas. "They took this case to a court where they prosecute murderers and rapists, and they were indicting this lady who went out and helped a senior citizen mark her ballot and vote." He suggested that if this had been a Park Cities white lady, the case would never have happened.

Hill says Lyon is wrong. "It's just not true. I've got people from both sides of the spectrum that are calling on us to prosecute voter fraud, and we're doing what we can with the tools we have to operate, including somewhat nebulous laws.

"I'm not picking on any one group. I just don't do that. Find me some white person in the Park Cities that you have some evidence against, and I'll try to prosecute them."

Hill points to the law itself as the biggest stumbling block. "I think everyone is frustrated with the fact that we do not have good enough legislation to sink our teeth into. And the problem, in addition to the law, according to my people, is that it's just very difficult to obtain the kind of evidence we need to prosecute these folks."

I can't disagree with any of that. The people involved are elderly and often are confused about what has transpired. I got scared myself a couple of times going door to door to interview people, because elderly voters thought I was from the government and tried to press ballots into my hands. I had a big picture in my mind of me going to the pokey, not Felicia Pitre.

As for the charge that Hill does what he does because of a political agenda, I have looked at a lot of election complaints, and I don't recall seeing any really juicy ones from Highland Park. It's simpler there, of course, because the culture doesn't include freedom of choice. But anybody can make a claim of bias about anybody. Someone could say I pick on people I disagree with politically and never write bad columns about my friends. (Absolutely untrue, by the way. I can prove in court that I have no friends. First evidence: I would show the judge how I have to get my wife to call my dog.)

Before Pitre was indicted, I met with Eric Mountin and Ben Stool, the assistant district attorneys of the public integrity unit, to hear their theory of vote fraud. Everything in vote-fraud cases turns ultimately on the issue of "assistance" of a voter. If you assist a voter legally, then you have to sign a document showing that you assisted. If you didn't assist anybody, then theoretically you don't have a problem.

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