Over the last year, in a series of reports, the Lone Star Project exposed widespread corruption within the Harris County Voter Registrar office implicating Tax Assessor Collector Leo Vasquez and Republican State House Member Dwayne Bohac (HD138 – Houston). A pending legal settlement and other Court documents reveal that Harris County Republican Tax Assessor Collector Leo Vasquez has agreed that problems were so severe that major reforms in his office policy and practices must be made. As part of the lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party to protect the voting rights of all Harris County voters, Vasquez conceded that he can no longer allow partisan Republican operatives like Ed Johnson to serve as associate voter registrar while also working as a political consultant. Further, Vasquez must promise that his office will no longer reject voter registration applications based on insubstantial and often absurd technicalities.
Earlier this year, in a hostile and dishonest op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, Leo Vasquez, responded to Lone Star Project reports detailing corruption within his office by calling Texas Democratic Party legal action a ”nuisance lawsuit” with “no merit” and saying that the “partisan attacks” were led by the Lone Star Project. (Source: Houston Chronicle, 6/16/2009) However, Vasquez was forced to acknowledge in the settlement that the TDP lawsuit was based on facts that showed the Tax Assessor’s office had engaged in improper behavior regarding the handling of voter registration applications and the handling of provisional ballots. Vasquez would not have agreed to the settlement if he did not believe that there was a strong chance that he would lose the lawsuit and more corruption would be uncovered. Specifically:
- Leo’s Lie – “It is also my highest priority and the goal of the employees of the tax office to register every eligible voter in Harris County.”
Fact: 24.4% of those applying to register to vote in Harris County were denied registration in time to vote in the 2008 elections. (Source: TX Secretary of State and Harris County Voter Registrar)
- Leo’s Lie – “These attacks are nothing more than partisan witch hunts”
Fact: As part of a court settlement, Vasquez acknowledged widespread voter registration problems detailed by the Lone Star Project. Vasquez was forced to accept more than a dozen changes insisted upon by Democrats to protect the rights of Harris County voters. (Source: Houston Chronicle, 10/23/2009)
- Leo’s Lie – Commenting upon Ed Johnson, Vasquez said, “There is nothing illegal about this activity, and it has nothing to do with his [Johnson’s] official duties with the tax office.”
Fact: While refusing to fire Johnson outright, Vasquez has acknowledged the Johnson is unfit to serve as Associate Voter Registrar and has reassigned him within the Tax Office. (Source: Houston Chronicle, 8/1/2009)
- Leo’s Lie – Responding to the Lone Star Project’s call to fire Ed Johnson for working as a paid Republican campaign consultant while also on the County payroll, Vasquez said, “This assertion is preposterous …”
Fact: Vasquez acknowledged the obvious conflict of interest and, as part of the legal settlement, was forced to initiate a policy prohibiting outside work as a partisan political consultant. (Source: Vasquez Settlement, 10/23/2009)
Leo needs to go
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie deserves high praise for pursuing legal action to force Leo Vasquez to change the voter registration practices employed by his office. The settlement provides some badly needed protections to Harris County voters. However, election laws can always be abused and distorted by dishonest officials who put raw partisanship ahead of Democratic values. Voters in Harris County will be at risk from blindly partisan Republicans until:
Ed Johnson is fired
Ed Johnson is a paid Republican campaign consultant working for GOP candidates in Harris County. The deposition of Johnson and others in the voter registrar’s office revealed that Johnson was a key manager in the voter registration office with broad oversight authority. After pressure from the Lone Star Project, the TDP and others, Vasquez was forced to reassign Johnson to another department in the Tax Assessor Collector’s office. (Source: Houston Chronicle, 8/1/2009) However, Johnson has retained his access to voter databases and maintains his relationships with many of the employees in the office. Vasquez has gone to great lengths to keep Johnson as the “Inside Man” for Republicans and no one should have any confidence elections in Harris County will be fair until Ed Johnson is fired.
George Hammerlein is fired
George Hammerlein, like Johnson, is a dedicated Republican from the Bettencourt regime who voted in the last five Republican primaries. Top voting officials in other major counties like Dallas abstain from participating in primary elections. (Source: Texas Secretary of State) Depositions and documents produced for the lawsuit have revealed that Hammerlein was Johnson’s key ally in the effort to disenfranchise voters. Hammerlein even went to Austin to testify for the bill that created the Harris GOP loophole that lead to the thousands of Harris County voters being disenfranchised. (Source: TX House Elections Committee) Hammerlein, like Johnson, was reassigned out of the elections office, but maintains his ability to influence elections in 2010.
Vasquez makes a formal apology and petitions the Harris County Commissioners Court to appoint a nonpartisan Election Administrator
Leo Vasquez has lost all credibility as an impartial voter registrar. While Harris County voters will have the ability to vote Vasquez out of office in 2010, they must endure his overseeing another election tainted by partisan politics. Harris voters did not vote Vasquez into office (he was appointed) and have no reason to trust him. In other major Texas Counties such as Dallas and Tarrant, nonpartisan Election Administrators are entrusted to insure fairness to all voters. To insure fair elections in Harris County and restore the trust of Harris County voters, County Commissioners should appoint a nonpartisan Election Administrator to oversee registration rolls and the conduct of elections.