Senators vow to fight confidential agreements they had to sign before viewing vote complaints

By Nicole Cobler
San Antonio Express-News
Originally published Feb. 9, 2017

AUSTIN — Two Texas senators are promising to fight confidential agreements they signed before being allowed to view voter fraud complaints reported to the secretary of state’s office.

Their plan to make the information public follows newly nominated Secretary of State Rolando Pablos’ declaration in a Senate committee hearing last week that “there is voter fraud in Texas, and we’re doing everything we can to prevent it.”

In response to Pablos’ statement, Democratic Sens. José Menéndez of San Antonio and Kirk Watson of Austin asked him to provide them with the number of complaints filed with his office after the November election. They also asked for the number of voter fraud allegations referred to the attorney general’s office and the nature of the complaints.

Pablos agreed to give lawmakers the documentation, but his office required them to sign nondisclosure agreements before releasing the information to them.

“In my view, that is absurd,” Watson said. “I just think the public needs to know this.”

Watson and Menéndez agreed to sign the forms, but both said they would fight the agreement. Watson said he intends to file legislation so “we can open this up.”

Menéndez said his attorneys are looking into the nondisclosure agreement to figure out “what it’s going to take to get out of that deal.” He could not share information about the number or type of complaints referred to the secretary of state’ office but said he did not see any information that alarmed him about the integrity of the state’s election system.

“I don’t see a problem of any magnitude,” he said.

Pablos spokesman Sam Taylor said that by law, a complaint of an election violation is confidential until it is submitted to the attorney general for review.

“It wasn’t just raw numbers,” Taylor said. “It was confidential information that’s collected in the process.”

Taylor pointed to a section of the state election code that says complaints alleging criminal conduct in an election are not public information unless the secretary of state or attorney general “makes a determination that the complaint does not warrant an investigation” or the attorney general’s office has completed its investigation.

The Senate Nominations Committee unanimously backed Pablos for his post Thursday but not before Watson voiced his concern with the records regarding allegations of voter fraud not being made available to the public.

“I was disappointed the secretary didn’t have that information at the time, even though he was making statements about it,” Watson told the committee. “I, frankly, don’t see anything in the nature of the complaints that ought to be confidential.”

The full Senate now must approve Pablos’ nomination. Pablos, an Austin lawyer who heads a renewable energy company and is a former San Antonio resident, would succeed Carlos Cascos of Brownsville.

Just hours after the hearing, Attorney General Ken Paxton touted the conviction of Rosa Maria Ortega for illegally voting in the November 2012 election and in the May 2014 GOP primary runoff in Dallas County. Ortega, a legal U.S. resident but not a citizen, was sentenced to eight years in prison for illegal voting by a noncitizen.

According to records obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, the attorney general’s office received two allegations of election fraud from the secretary of state regarding the November 2016 election. Three additional allegations of voter fraud during that election were reported to the attorney general by voters or what the attorney general’s office lists as “other.”

The two allegations from the secretary of state’s office involved “mail-in ballot violations” in Bee County and “unlawful entry into a ballot box” in McCulloch County, according to the records.

Nearly 9 million Texans voted in the 2016 general election.

Records show that the attorney general’s office received more than 360 allegations of voter fraud between the 2012 primaries and July 2016 and that it prosecuted 15 cases.