Premature Election

Election challenger Rick Wilson has been called many names. He may one day be called "mayor."

Last May, the city of Forney, a tiny but growing bedroom community 20 miles east of Dallas, played host to a election for mayor that featured switched ballots, confounding results and the undue influence of a crony of the incumbent. If not that, then challenger and self-made millionaire Rick Wilson has manipulated the testimony of nearly 200 voters and an election judge, masterfully concocting a scandal that's polarizing an otherwise friendly Texas town. This is a not a case where the truth is likely to lie somewhere in between.

On May 7, the day of the election for mayor and city council, Wilson, the owner of a thriving fabrication company in Forney, expected to eke out a close victory. Informal surveys pointed to a tight contest. The electorate seemed divided between Darrell Grooms, the folksy, pro-development incumbent, and the reluctant challenger who supporters enlisted to check what they saw as the unbridled growth of their city. But that night, voters handed Grooms an easy re-election, startling Wilson and his supporters.

On the evening of the election, Gene Albright, an election official who helped tabulate the early and general election votes, ran into the chastened challenger outside Forney's school administration building. He was rather cryptic, but he said there was some sort of problem with the returns, although he was not ready to discuss them yet. He wanted to head home and review the election data first.

Earlier that morning, Albright began his first day as an election judge after being prodded by an elderly, civic-minded woman named Betty Hatley. At 8 a.m., the city secretary and police chief delivered the box of early votes. Although he didn't think much of it at the time, Albright would later remember that there was no seal on the ballot box.

Albright began counting the early votes. At one point, he came across around 60 ballots in a row for Grooms and Rodney Vike, an incumbent council member. A retiree who had worked as the director of benefits and compensation for a defense contractor, Albright did not jump to any untoward conclusions. He merely assumed that Grooms and Vike had done better than any observer of local politics had expected.

After the polls closed, Albright tabulated the votes cast on election day. That yielded a much tighter contest, with Wilson actually garnering 51 percent of the 562 votes cast on May 7. Albright went home and ate dinner. Then he headed to Wilson's house, talked to his wife, Sandra, and gave her the voter tallies. While Wilson received slightly more votes than Grooms on the day of the election, the incumbent managed to win a whopping 73 percent of the 565 early votes. Interestingly, the Texas Secretary of State's Office sent a monitor to observe the general election after some 15 Forney residents filed a petition requesting oversight. The monitor did not notice any improprieties, however.

But after the election, Wilson and his attorney heard a number of outrageous tales of the mayor's conduct during early voting, including how Grooms lurked near Forney residents as they performed their civic duty, asking them "if they voted correctly." (Grooms did not return repeated calls for comment.)

Wilson has since filed a petition to contest the election results, and a trial is scheduled for later next month. Albright has filed an affidavit as well, detailing his observations. A supporter of Wilson's during the election, Albright understandably has watched his credibility be questioned. But he says that he will testify under oath if the case goes to trial. Meanwhile, he says that Hatley, who urged him to serve as an election judge, left him a voice-mail message after he went public with his concerns.

"She is a kind lady, but at that moment she told me I wasn't going to do anything more in this city," Albright says. Hatley refused to be interviewed for this story.

Grooms' attorney says that while the discrepancy between the early and general election votes may seem wide, that's because his client is a skilled campaigner.

"In a small town, there is a lot to be said for getting the vote out during the early voting process," says attorney Kent Hofmeister. "I know that Mayor Grooms worked very hard to get the vote out early. Mr. Wilson may or may not have put in that kind of effort."

Given how tough the burden of proof is on a candidate contesting an election, Hofmeister's defense might be enough to thwart any effort to undo the results. But Wilson's case merely begins with the yawning gap between the two returns. After the election, Wilson's attorney, John Clement, took affidavits from those who went to the polls during early voting. He shared his findings with Kaufman County District Judge Andrew Kupper during proceedings in August.

"And judge, the most important fact in this election contest, and really something that I've never even heard of, we have had more people come forward and confirm to us that they voted for Rick Wilson in early voting than official results indicate," Clements told Kupper.

Grooms' attorney questions the validity of the affidavits, and the judge has yet to consider them, but there's more. During the August proceedings, Forney council member Phil Wood testified that the city council authorized Mayor Grooms to serve as the acting city manager behind closed doors during executive session. That testimony drew a sharp rebuke from the judge. "Let me tell you something, just in case--voting in executive session is not permitted under our laws."

Well, there's that. And the fact that the city charter forbids elected officials like the mayor from working in municipal government. But the kicker is that in his city manager role, Grooms served as the supervisor of City Secretary Odessa Moore, and if you've read these types of news stories before, you probably know what's coming: Odessa Moore served as the early voting clerk. In fact, she had one of the keys to the early voting ballot box. The one that Albright said was unsealed.

Wood, the council member, also testified that while Moore initially supported the challenger, she switched her allegiance to Grooms after she went from being an hourly employee to a salaried staffer making $60,000 a year--about a $9,000 raise. Grooms' attorney points out that the city council approved the secretary's pay raise.

Hofmeister maintains that the city council never appointed the mayor as the city manager; Grooms, however, boasted in his campaign literature that he was serving as "acting city manager." Asked about that, Hofmeister says that both Grooms and the city council "stepped forward in this vacuum" to assume the responsibilities of an interim city manager, but that they were not officially appointed to that position.

Over the last few days, John Clement has been inspecting the ballots at a room at the Kaufman County Sheriff's Office in Kaufman, while a videographer, a sheriff's deputy and other officials capture the moment for, if not posterity, then a court of law. Wilson's and Grooms' attorneys were in the room. Other candidates for office, whom Clement won't name, remembered their ballot number as they cast their vote for Wilson since they were suspicious of how the election might go down. Clement has reviewed those ballots, and sure enough, they were cast for Grooms, not Wilson.

"I can't say too much, but in my mind we've come across compelling evidence that someone switched the ballots," Clement says. He adds that he has worn gloves while handling the ballots and has bagged them for evidence in case they need to be checked for fingerprints.

Wilson says that for raising concerns about the integrity of the election, he's drawn scant criticism, although a handful of people called him a "sissy boy" and a "crybaby." If any of his allegations are true, they may have to refer to him by another name: mayor.

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