Tuesday, October 9, 2007

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Refugio County Commissioner Pleads Guilty to Felony for Engineering Election Fraud Scheme

REFUGIO – A sitting Refugio County Precinct 4 commissioner today pleaded guilty to felony election fraud charges in Refugio County and will also plead to an associated misdemeanor charge next week. Commissioner Raymond Villarreal, 57, admitted to tampering with governmental records during the March 2006 primary election. Last February, a Refugio County grand jury indicted Villarreal for violating state law as a candidate for the county commissioners court.

Under today’s plea agreement, Villarreal pleaded guilty today to one count of tampering with a governmental record, a state jail felony. Villarreal will also plead guilty to possessing the ballot of another person, a Class B misdemeanor. He will serve 90 days in jail, be placed on five years probation, immediately resign his position on the commissioners court and pay a $1,500 fine. He will pay an additional $1,000 fine on the possession-of-ballot charge and may be obligated to pay restitution to the county for theft of services.

“Today, a county commissioner admitted to tampering with state documents during an election,” said Attorney General Greg Abbott. “Texans will not tolerate candidates or activists who violate the law in order to illegally influence the outcome of an election. We are grateful to Refugio County District Attorney Michael Sheppard and Sheriff Earl Petropoulos for their assistance with this case.”

Attorney General Abbott added: “Free and fair elections are critical to the success of our democratic system. We will continue to prosecute criminals who commit election fraud.”

Villarreal was indicted after the Refugio County Sheriff’s Office conducted an investigation. Based on the results of that investigation, the Refugio County District Attorney's Office filed a complaint with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which referred the case to the Office of the Attorney General.

The Attorney General’s prosecutors determined from the initial sheriff office’s investigation that Villarreal had developed a complicated scheme to influence the outcome of the 2006 Democratic primary in Refugio County. According to investigators, Villarreal obtained numerous mail-in ballot applications and took these to various residents around the county for their signatures. Villarreal then filled in the address block of these in-county voters with out-of-county addresses that belonged to his supporters.

As a result, when the county elections office mailed absentee ballots to those voters, the ballots were not mailed to the addresses where the voters would receive them during the mail-in ballot period. Instead, the ballots were mailed to the homes of Villarreal’s friends and supporters, who notified him when the ballots arrived by mail. Then, Villarreal picked up the blank ballots, which he took to the “original” applicants inside the county. According to the investigation, those voters marked the ballots in his presence.

The conclusion of these charges is the latest in a series of recent election fraud prosecutions. Last June, five Starr and Hidalgo County residents were indicted in Brooks County on various charges of voter fraud for their conduct during the 2006 election cycle. A grand jury returned felony indictments against the five defendants in an investigation that began with a complaint filed by Starr County Elections Administrator. That case is ongoing.