Starr County election probe quietly moves forward

While an investigation into allegations of voter fraud in the Edinburg municipal elections, which has so far yielded five arrests, continues, another similar investigation quietly remains ongoing in Starr County.

Authorities in Starr County launched their own investigation into voter fraud earlier this year resulting in charges against seven people beginning in January.

However, unlike the investigation in Edinburg that is being done with the help of the Texas Rangers, the probe in Starr County is mainly being handled in-house by the 229th District Attorney’s office with the help of the Starr County Special Crimes Unit.

The reason for that is simply that they’re not needed, according to Robert Caples, commander of the Special Crimes Unit, who added that it’s up to the DA whether to request the Rangers’ assistance or not.

“From an investigator’s perspective, there is enough integrity and knowhow in Starr County to be able to take care of this,” Caples said, noting that the Rangers have always made themselves available for assistance. “But again it’s entirely up to the DA who he wants to ask for help.”

Omar Escobar, the 229th District Attorney, said they already receive assistance from the Attorney General’s office on the applicability of the new elections laws that went into effect Dec. 1, 2017. Those laws, enacted through Senate Bill 5, make it a state jail felony to provide false information on an application or submit an application without the voter’s consent.

Escobar has consulted with them since the very beginning of the investigation which was launched after mail-in ballot applications were flagged by the Starr County Elections Administration as early as January.

Questionable mail-in ballots were at the center of the first three arrests in the Starr County investigation. Those arrests were of politiqueras who are accused of filling out mail-in ballot applications for the March primary elections under the pretense those voters were disabled.

In February, the AG’s office sent a letter to Escobar expressing their support for the investigation and offering assistance.

“We did have guidance from the attorney general’s office and they never asked me to bring in the Texas Rangers so I kind of take the lead from whatever advice they would have given us since they have more expertise in these areas,” Escobar said regarding whether he would request assistance from the Texas Rangers. “If the attorney general’s office asks me to, I will.”

He pointed out, though, that the AG’s office also has its own investigators who could potentially provide assistance in the future.

The last arrests in the investigation occurred in February when four people were charged with illegal voting for allegedly casting votes despite being on felony probation. Those votes were allegedly cast in four different elections in 2016.

Though no arrests have been made since then, Escobar and Caples said they continue to work on the case.

“There are documents that are being put in order and categorized,” Caples said. “They’re just being put into different categories to make it easier to look through because there are too many of them.”

That task is being handled by the district attorney’s office, Caples said, so the SCU is waiting on word from them.

Escobar explained the examination of the mail-in ballots was something his office wanted to do in coordination with the AG’s office and given the volume of documents, it has taken a long time.

“When you have to go through almost a thousand mail-ins, you’re going to have to capture a lot of data,” he said. “Then you have to index it and it’s a very time-consuming process.”