A South Texas mayor accused of voter fraud is back on the ballot this November.
It’s been four years since Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina allegedly organized an illegal vote-harvesting scheme that led to his arrest and indictment on a dozen felony election fraud charges. Now he’s running for re-election, while the case against him remains stalled in court.
Molina, who previously served as a city council member and before that a police officer, was first elected mayor in November 2017.
Soon after, reports began to surface that people who didn’t live in Edinburg had been enticed by Molina’s campaign to vote illegally in the city’s municipal elections.
Texas Rangers investigated and began arresting suspects in the case in the summer of 2018. By November, 15 co-conspirators had been charged in what emerged as an organized scheme to recruit voters from outside the city to fraudulently register using Edinburg addresses so they could vote for Molina.
Molina and his wife were arrested in April 2019 and indicted on multiple felony charges, including organized election fraud and illegal voting. By September 2019, more than 20 people had been arrested and accused of participating in the scheme.
Documents from Hidalgo County’s elections office showed Molina personally helped voters change their registration addresses so they could vote in Edinburg. Some used the address of an apartment complex he owned.
State election law requires Texans to register and vote where they reside. As an elected official and a deputy voter registrar, Molina was expected to know the rules.
Mayor Molina maintains he is innocent. He claimed the investigation was politically motivated and accused his opponent of committing the same type of voter fraud he was eventually charged with.
Hidalgo County courts delayed Molina’s trial for more than two years, first at his request and then due to COVID restrictions.
On Thursday, in Molina’s first court hearing since March 2020, a visiting judge again delayed setting a trial date. Judge Carlos Valdez, a Democrat from Nueces County, said a hearing is needed to address allegations in a motion filed by Molina on Wednesday asking to dismiss the Hidalgo County district attorney from the prosecution due to alleged political conflicts of interest.
Meanwhile, Molina continues making decisions that impact the lives of Edinburg residents.
One of Molina’s opponents in this year’s mayoral election says that’s not right.
“Citizens deserve to have trust in their elected officials … trust that they are working for the people,” Gilbert Enriquez told Texas Scorecard this week. He said the charges against Molina are serious, and change is needed to bring credibility back to the city.
Enriquez resigned from the city council in March after deciding to run for mayor, saying he wanted to hold himself to the same standards of accountability and transparency he expects from the current mayor and council members.
Before he left, Enriquez voted for a change to the city’s charter that would allow the council to suspend any city official indicted for a felony until the charges are resolved.
That charter amendment is also on Edinburg voters’ November ballot, but it would not apply retroactively to Molina’s felony indictments.
“I hope people come out and vote,” Enriquez added.
Fern McClaugherty, a longtime voice for Hidalgo County taxpayers, agrees that citizens deserve elected officials they can trust.
She’s part of the O.W.L.S. (Objective Watchers of the Legal System), a well-known local government watchdog group. Instantly recognizable by their bright-red shirts, O.W.L.S. speak out at local government meetings, watch and work at the polls, and have been vocal election integrity advocates in the Texas Legislature.
McClaugherty is running a second time for Edinburg City Council Place 1, hoping to make a difference for citizens from inside the government. But she told Texas Scorecard that whatever the election results, she’ll continue working for accountability on behalf of local taxpayers.
“I never give up,” she said.
Edinburg is home to about 107,000 people—the second most populous city in Hidalgo County, in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas-Mexico border.
Molina’s case is one of several recent election fraud prosecutions in South Texas, where organized vote-harvesting by paid political operatives is a particularly persistent problem, though it’s hardly exclusive to the region.
Voters can report instances of suspected fraud to the Texas Attorney General’s 2021 Election Integrity Unit.
Early voting in the November 2 election is underway now through October 29.
Voting information for Edinburg is available on the Hidalgo County Elections website.