Six days into trial, and attorney Rick Salinas is slowly building up his case to regain his father’s 20-year seat as the mayor of Mission, but can he do so with inconsistent testimonies and unreliable witnesses?
Wednesday was the first day Mayor Armando “Doc” O’Caña appeared before the 93rd District Court. Former city of Mission mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas filed a lawsuit against O’Caña claiming election fraud occurred during the June 9 runoff election.
Salinas’ son and attorney, Rick Salinas, contended that Mayor O’Caña plotted an “illegal scheme” with his friends and family during the runoff, saying “If the court will give me latitude, I will connect the dots.”.
Salinas tied the “illegal scheme” to O’Caña’s niece and co-counsel, Patty O’Caña, who lost her race for 275th State District Court to Marla Cuellar, and happens to also be Salinas’ ex-wife.
The younger Salinas interrogated O’Caña about his campaign finance report. He itemized expenses, and questioned contributions, donations, and lack of payments for campaign workers in the report. The report lists his niece, Veronica O’Caña as his political consultant under “Veo Consulting,” despite having no apparent political experience. She received $27,075 of the $39,240 spent during O’Caña’s entire campaign.
“You spent about 90 percent of your funds in June on Veo Consulting, does that sound right?” Salinas questioned. “And nobody ever gave you a report where that money was being spent?”
“She’s my niece, I trust her with my life,” O’Caña responded. Salinas then argued that both O’Cañas were plotting an illegal scheme covering each other’s tracks.
“She doesn’t have any experience getting 4×8 signs, but Veronica O’Caña is someone you trust?” Salinas questioned, “If you commit an illegal act, you’d have to trust her with your life, correct?” Salinas then alludes to the fact that Veronica could’ve used that money to harvest votes.
Where was the money spent? Several witnesses testified they were transported in a white Mercedes-Benz sprinter van, the same white van which Samuel Tijerina previously testified was paid for in cash by Veronica O’Caña. This van would’ve been an in-kind donation; however, it was not reported.
And where is Veronica O’Caña? She has been identified by several witnesses on various occasions as paying the driver, paying voters, as well as compensating for the van. Yet, she has avoided Salinas’ subpoenas to appear in court.
“Unless she’s got something to hide, there would be no reason for her to avoid service,” Salinas stated.
Thursday morning, two women testified on bribery.
Dolores Gomez testified O’Caña’s other niece, Patty O’Caña-Olivarez, recently visited Gomez’s home attempting to dissuade her from testifying. Hinojosa objected, stating O’Caña-Olivarez spoke to Gomez in regards to the best interest of her health. Gomez confirmed she had mental issues, yet she testified that she, her husband, and her daughter-in-law were paid to vote.
Pamela Durr, who identified herself as a cocaine addict, said the same white Mercedes van transported her to the polls during the June 9 runoff election. She also stated the O’Caña campaign targeted drug addicts or those needing financial assistance, such as Samuel Deckard. Durr stated she was paid $20.
The next witness, Orlando Delgado, appeared to be defiant and unresponsive to Salinas’ line of questioning. He was subpoenaed to testify in response to a voice recording that was shared on Facebook. In the muffled recording, one could briefly hear a male voice stating people were being picked up in a white van behind the police station, and were paid $40 a person, “paid all in fives.”
Yet Delgado defiantly failed to recognize his voice in the recording and denied any participation whatsoever. “I’m here to clear my name!” Delgado stated.
Delgado also testified that when he was subpoenaed he called his friend seeking help. Ironically, this friend was Jesus Rodriguez, the driver of the white van. Rodriguez informed Delgado to reach out to Patty for legal advice. “You were sent over to Patty’s office by a co-conspirator,” stated Salinas.
“It’s just a coincidence that you know Jesus Rodriguez,” Salinas stated. “It’s also just a coincidence that you were taken to go vote in a white Mercedes van. And a coincidence that you met with Patty O’Caña. All of that is just a coincidence?”
Delgado replied, “Yes.”
Court resumed on Monday morning with incoherent witnesses who couldn’t remember, weren’t direct in their responses, and were contradictory, at best.
Leticia Cooley was the first and only witness to testify Monday morning. She was questioned for over two hours, mostly to clarify her statements. She couldn’t remember if she applied for a mail-ballot application nor could she identify the person who picked up her mail-ballot, which runs contrary to her previously written statement where she identified Elizabeth Hernandez as the person who harvested her vote. After cross-examination by Hinojosa, Cooley testified that a woman delivered her mail-ballot, Cooley filled it out, and a woman took her application, however she doesn’t remember who.
In the afternoon, three more witnesses testified on mail-ballot harvesting. Yet, as before, their testimonies contradicted themselves as they would change their statements or falsely identify people who took their mail-ballots.
On Tuesday morning, yet again another witness testified that a white van transported voters to the polls during the May local elections. Ines Torres, was promised a “bag of clothes” in exchange for her vote, yet it wasn’t confirmed if she ever received it.
Coincidentally, Veronica O’Caña’s name reappears as having assisted this voter. Torres stated she voted in the van, and they told her how to vote. “I was surprised. I didn’t know what to say.” Due to this event, Torres stated she applied for a mail-ballot application for the June 9 runoff, hoping to avoid the same mistake.
There was disagreement between both attorneys on the relevance of this testimony, given it applied to the May election, not the runoff. Judge Dorsey had to settle the courtroom stating, “There is relevance for the first election, but I want to know primarily about the runoff election.”
Returning to his witness, Salinas asked her, “How did that make you feel?”
“I felt bad that I had done this. I had never seen this in my life,” she stated.
“These ladies in May, did they go back to see you in June?” Salinas asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
She stated they went to her house inquiring about the mail-ballot, however she lied saying it hadn’t arrived.
Another witness, Margarita Ramirez, testified on mail-ballot harvesting claiming Elizabeth Hernandez took her ballot. It seemed as if Ramirez was confused by the mail-ballot application process and stated she didn’t apply for one, “I only signed the ballot and she took it.”
Tuesday’s key witness was Esmeralda Lara, a Mission school district janitor and well-known “politiquera.” She testified she originally volunteered for O’Caña, however she was approached to switch sides for $1,500, in addition to a higher-paying job with the city.
Attorney Salinas didn’t believe her testimony claiming she was part of O’Caña’s illegal scheme. He then began to highlight her criminal history. During the 2005 McAllen mayoral election, Lara was charged on 20 counts of illegal voter assistance. However, the charges were dismissed by the district attorney.
Judge Dorsey set Thursday at noon as the deadline for Salinas’ witnesses to testify. Afterwards, Hinojosa will call his witnesses to counter allegations made against his client, returning the same line of arguments against Salinas.
This is the second part in a series covering the trial over the Mission Mayoral Election. Part One of the series can be found here.