For years, illegal mail ballot harvesters have been rumored to be operating in Tarrant County, allegedly paid by political campaigns seeking to steal votes from senior citizens. Now it appears the harvesters are getting caught.

Two years after Texas Scorecard first reported on the “largest voter fraud investigation in Texas history,” state officials indicted a first round of suspects.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced today that four members of an “organized voter fraud ring in North Fort Worth” have been arrested and charged with a total of 30 felony counts related to illegal mail ballot harvesting.

The arrests follow a two-year criminal investigation by the Office of the Attorney General’s Election Fraud Unit, initiated by research and an election fraud complaint by local watchdog group Direct Action Texas. DAT’s work has resulted in at least six criminal investigations into fraud across Texas.

“Direct Action Texas spent countless hours analyzing open records requests, noticing patterns and discovering Fort Worth voters whose voice was stolen,” Aaron Harris, the group’s Executive Director, told Texas Scorecard in October 2016. “This vote harvesting operation preys on the elderly and the economically disadvantaged, who are among our most vulnerable neighbors.”

“Our research has shined a light on a covert, yet pervasive network – to the tune of 20,000 ballots, over four years, primarily within the African-American and Hispanic communities,” Harris added. “All indications are this is the largest investigation related to voter fraud the Attorney General’s office has ever seen.”

Leticia Sanchez, Leticia Sanchez Tepichin, Laura Parra, and Maria Solis were “paid to target elderly voters in certain north-side Fort Worth precincts in a scheme to generate a large number of mail ballots, and then harvest those ballots for specific candidates in 2016,” according to Paxton’s announcement.

All four defendants are charged with one or more counts of providing false information on an application for a mail ballot, a state jail felony. Sanchez is also charged with one count of illegal voting, a second-degree felony.

The OAG doesn’t identify who paid the defendants to harvest the mail ballots, or for which candidates.

Harris said he was confident at least two local officials got into office as a result of the voter fraud he uncovered: State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr. (D–Fort Worth) and Fort Worth Mayor Pro Tem Sal Espino. A month after Harris’ findings were made public by DAT and Texas Scorecard, Espino announced he would not seek a seventh term in May 2017.

Following today’s announcement, Harris told Texas Scorecard:

“We are pleased to see the indictments handed down today. DAT hopes those responsible for these activities, not just the lowly harvesters, are held accountable for these elections transgressions. These are the latest in what have been dozens of criminal arrests for election violations this year in Texas. These indictments just go to show everyone, much work needs to be done to restore integrity to our elections. I hope the Governor’s office and Legislature take the hard job of reforming the election code seriously in the upcoming legislative session.”

The OAG said its investigation into the Fort Worth voter fraud ring found fraudulent applications were generated through forged signatures and by altering old applications and resubmitting them without the voters’ knowledge. Harvesters also deceived voters to obtain their signatures. “In most cases, the voters do not even know their votes have been stolen,” prosecutors said.

Paxton said in a statement:

“Ballots by mail are intended to make it easier for Texas seniors to vote. The unfortunate downside is their extreme vulnerability to fraud. My office is committed to ensuring that paid vote harvesters who fraudulently generate mail ballots, stealing votes from seniors, are held accountable for their despicable actions and for the damage they inflict on the electoral process.”

With voter fraud investigations and prosecutions on the rise, Paxton’s office has asked the legislature for more funding and employees for its Election Fraud Unit, which currently has only two attorneys and four investigators. The OAG expects caseloads to increase to 18 cases per investigator and 37 to 74 cases per Assistant Attorney General. Additional resources should allow state prosecutors to also investigate the campaigns and candidates who pay illegal harvesters to commit voter fraud.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.