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Ed Johnson

Harris County voter registration issues get national coverage

Lou Dubose, onetime editor of the Texas Observer and Tom DeLay biographer has written a story for the Washington Spectator about the shenanigans in the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office with voter registration. You can read it here (PDF), thanks to the Lone Star Project. There’s some information in there I hadn’t seen before, and it’s a good overview if you’re just tuning in now. Check it out.

Lone Star Project on Bohac

Last week, the Lone Star Project took a look at how now-reassigned Associate Voter Registrar Ed Johnson got his hands on drivers license data, which he and his business partner State Rep. Dwayne Bohac then used to sell campaign data services to various Republican candidates. Now they’re taking a closer look at what Bohac has done in the Lege to further their enterprise.

Bohac’s “Catch 22” Bill
Dwayne Bohac wrote and passed a bill to alter voter registration forms, thereby creating a bureaucratic loophole later used to deny thousands of Harris County voter registration applications.

  • During the 2005 Texas Legislative Session, Bohac authored HB 1268, which, on its face, seemed rather innocuous but created a confusing “Catch 22” technical requirement that voter registration applicants must “check” a new box on the form based on whether they provided a driver’s license number or a Social Security number on the form to verify their eligibility to vote. With the passage of the bill, voter registrars could choose to reject as incomplete any application where new voters failed to “check” a box – or “checked” the box when they shouldn’t have – even if the application otherwise included the driver’s license or social security information needed to verify the applicant’s eligibility.
  • In fact, Bohac was referenced in a letter from the Secretary of State’s Office to the U.S. Department of Justice during the preclearance process of the bill.
  • Bohac’s “inside man” AND business partner at Campaign Data Systems, Ed Johnson, who was the Associate Voter Registrar in Harris County until being reassigned last week, aggressively used the Bohac “Catch 22” bill to help reject more than 70,000 Harris County registration applications. By comparison, Dallas County did not reject applications based only upon the Bohac “Catch 22” provision and, as a result rejected only 1,800 registration applications.

Bohac Calls on Business Partner to Testify
Bohac uses his “inside man” for more than just business, as Johnson has also been involved in Bohac’s legislative work. In the past two legislative sessions, Johnson has registered to testify in favor of eight bills that his boss, Bohac, authored. In four of the hearings, he was the only person to testify in favor of Bohac’s bills. There is no evidence that Dwayne Bohac or Ed Johnson disclosed their business partnership. Article 3, Sec. 22 of the Texas Constitution states that “A member who has a personal or private interest in any measure or bill, proposed, or pending before the Legislature” must disclose the relationship and cannot vote on the legislation.

I wonder at what point the Attorney General should be getting involved in this. Of course, Bohac isn’t a Democrat, so Greg Abbott is unlikely to be interested. But in theory, one wonders at what point the AG should be getting involved.

Hammerlein, too

The Chron confirms the Lone Star Project report about Ed Johnson being reassigned in the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, and adds on to it.

Two Harris County officials at the center of an ongoing dispute over what the Texas Democratic Party claims was an orchestrated effort to purge thousands of voters for partisan political reasons have been reassigned to duties outside the voter registration office, Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez said Friday.

Vasquez insisted the removal of Ed Johnson and George Hammerlein from voter registration duties was part of a larger office reorganization and was not related to a federal lawsuit by the Texas Democratic Party challenging the way the office handles the voter rolls.

Johnson’s impartiality has been questioned by Democratic Party officials, who noted that the associate voter registrar also was a paid director for Computer Data Systems, a private company owned by state Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, that sells voter registration data to Republican candidates.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with any outside influence,“ Vasquez said of the personnel shuffle. “Two of the people in the voter registration office, I thought their skill sets were better used elsewhere.”

The reorganization, he said, involves 20 employees.

Mighty convenient for this sort of thing to happen now and to have nothing to do with any pending legal dispute, that’s all I can say. Getting those two away from voter registration data did need to happen, though, so as far as that goes it’s all good.

LSP says Johnson reassigned from voter registration duties

Here’s their report.

The Lone Star Project has learned that Republican Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez has reassigned Associate Voter Registrar Ed Johnson from voter registration duties to a communications role. Johnson was exposed by the Lone Star Project as “the inside man” to Republican elected officials, particularly State Rep. Dwayne Bohac (HD138-Houston).

Vasquez’s actions appear to be a cynical attempt to distract attention from an ongoing lawsuit in which Vasquez is seeking to withhold documents and other records that would likely confirm that his office improperly rejected as many as 70,000 voter registration applications and improperly handled more than 1,200 provisional ballots.

I haven’t seen this reported anywhere else as yet, so it’s an unconfirmed report. But not a surprising one.

Where’d that driver’s license data come from?

The Lone Star Project revisits the matter of Ed Johnson and Dwayne Bohac and their cozy relationship as business partners with a real in at the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office.

Last month, the Lone Star Project revealed that Harris County Associate Voter Registrar, Ed Johnson, is a paid employee of a GOP political consulting firm, Campaign Data Systems (CDS), owned by Republican State Representative Dwayne Bohac.  On the firm’s website Bohac boasted that the CDS voter data file is enhanced by information culled from “driver license” records.  The contact name provided to obtain the data is Ed Johnson, Bohac’s business partner AND the Harris County Associate Voter Registrar. How did CDS get the drivers license records? It appears that Bohac obtained the records improperly by way of his “man on the inside” Ed Johnson.  Here are the relevant facts and documents:

  • Under Texas law, official driver license records can be obtained ONLY from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) after paying a considerable fee and signing an agreement that the records will not be sold or given to other individuals or organizations.
  • Documents obtained from the DPS by the Lone Star Project confirm that the Harris County Elections office obtained and received regular updates of Texas driver license records. When obtaining the records, Ed Johnson himself signed an agreement on behalf Harris County that he WOULD NOT make the information available to any other individual or organization.
  • The DPS also confirmed that neither Campaign Data Systems, Dwayne Bohac nor any CDS clients individually requested or received driver license records at any time.
  • The only direct link between driver license records and Campaign Data Systems is Ed Johnson, who appears to have improperly used driver license records from the Harris County Elections Office to enhance voter data sold by Campaign Data Systems.

Did Dwayne Bohac and Ed Johnson break the law?
Dwayne Bohac must either produce evidence that CDS obtained Texas Drivers License records from a source other than the Harris County Elections office OR admit that he lied to clients and did not enhance their voter data with driver license records. Otherwise, Dwayne Bohac and Ed Johnson conspired to illegally obtain Texas Driver License records and use them for commercial political purposes which is a violation under the Texas Transportation Code, Sec. 730.013, and the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act of 1994.

You can click over to see the documents themselves. More will be coming next week.

Bacarisse, too

Rick Casey jumps on the Ed Johnson bandwagon, and he starts off with the information that former District Clerk Charles Bacarisse was doing the same kind of moonlighting as Johnson was.

Bacarisse hired out as a $4,500-a-month consultant to a courier service and a company that served court papers on parents who failed to make child-support payments.

Apparently, the $135,000 a year we paid him wasn’t enough.

Bacarisse said there was nothing unethical about the arrangement, but a competing process server said she had turned down his offer (for a price) to help her by recommending her to lawyers who need those services.

He denied it, but the sense lingered that we had a district clerk who was on the take.

I have more sympathy for Ed Johnson. He has to get by on the $85,092 we taxpayers give him as associate voter registrar at the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office.

I’m sure this was public knowledge at some point, but I either never saw it or I’d forgotten it. If nothing else, you’d think that the extra money on top of the taxpayer-funded salary would be enough to frost a lot of people. I mean, $54K a year ($4,500 a month) is a pretty decent income, especially for what was surely part-time work. A similar arrangement in the private sector would likely be grounds for termination.

As for Johnson, Casey makes the someday-the-other-team-will-be-in-charge counter to Vasquez’s defense of Johnson, then notes that Harris County isn’t like the other counties.

Let’s do like Bexar and Dallas counties and set up a non-partisan office to handle voter registration and elections.

Chapter 31 of the Texas Election Code makes it easy. Commissioners Court simply has to vote to set up a county election commission, made up of the county judge, the county clerk, the tax assessor-collector and the county chairs of the political parties.

Together, they hire an election administrator and give him or her a budget to handle voter registration and to conduct elections.

This is a bit more rational than having the tax assessor-collector do the registration, which fell to that office only because it collected the poll tax that was then considered useful in keeping irresponsible poor people from voting.

If we had that law, the moonlighting that Vasquez thinks is perfectly acceptable could send Johnson to jail for a year.

The law makes it a Class A misdemeanor for an elections administrator or any full-time staff member in a county of more than a million if he “makes a political contribution … or publicly supports or opposes a candidate for public office or a measure to be voted on at an election.”

So, Leo, don’t you think that if the Legislature says it’s a crime for a nonpartisan voter registrar to support candidates, it might be a good policy for you to prohibit it as well?

Separating out the voter registration function from the Tax Assessor’s office is an idea that’s come up before, and would be meritorious even without the politicization of the current setup. I don’t sense any movement to make it happen, however, so the next best thing is a Tax Assessor’s office that actually tries to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It’s not so much to ask, is it?

TDP responds to Vasquez

From Saturday’s op-ed pages, here’s the Texas Democratic Party’s response, written by the TDP’s legal counsel Chad Dunn, to Leo Vasquez in the matter of Ed Johnson.

Johnson’s conflict of interest doesn’t pass the smell test, and during the course of our lawsuit, we’ve found evidence that improper partisanship may have affected the conduct of elections in Harris County.

For example:

1. Problems with Johnson’s provisional ballot operation were pointed out last November by a Republican, Jim Harding, who chaired the Harris County Ballot Board. Provisional ballot affidavits were not processed by the tax office until five days after the deadline required by state law, forcing the ballot board to review most of the more than 7,000 provisional ballots in just 24 hours.

2. Harding complained that tax office employees altered official election records with white-out and corrective tape in violation of federal law. Sworn depositions later revealed that Ed Johnson had personally reviewed, and possibly changed, the recommendations of career staff regarding the counting of provisional ballots that included the names of Johnson’s Republican clients.

3. As reported by KHOU-TV and the Houston Chronicle last October, 11,350 timely voter registration applications were not processed in time to be put on the voter rolls by the first day of early voting in 2008, as required by state law, a problem not experienced in any other Texas county.

4. During the 2008 election cycle, Harris County rejected almost 70,000 voter registration applications. In Dallas County, where applications are processed by nonpartisan election officials, only 1,183 applications were rejected. Harris County has refused to make the database that tracks these rejected applications available for inspection.

5. During the same time period, Harris County removed 200,000 names — or 10 percent of the county’s voters — from the voter registration list for unknown reasons.

6. Additional evidence reveals that voter registration applicants who applied months before the election did not receive letters notifying them of their rejection status or asking for more information until Election Day or days after, another violation of state law that may have denied many the right to vote.

These problems are not “frivolous” matters.

Just thought I’d mention that the Democrats have had pretty good luck in recent years with election-related lawsuits. It was a lawsuit filed by several losing candidates after the 2002 election that led to the revelations about campaign finance violations by TAB and TRMPAC, which in turn led to a bunch of indictments, some convictions, and the eventual downfall of Tom DeLay. It was another Democratic lawsuit after DeLay’s resignation and withdrawal from the ballot in 2006 that forced the Republicans to run a write-in candidate in that election. That lawsuit was, naturally, declared “frivolous” by Republican Party of Texas Chair Tina Benkiser. That doesn’t mean this one’s a winner as well, but all things considered I like our odds.

Leo’s response

Here, for the record, is Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez’s response to the Ed Johnson business. Basically, he denies everything, admits to nothing, and makes counter-accusations, certainly a time-honored technique when under attack. I’ll stipulate that the charges against Ed Johnson are being made by partisan groups. I find it rather admirable that Vasquez is so willing to go to bat for an employee like this. But man, if he can’t or won’t see how much this looks like a conflict of interest, I don’t know what to say. The voters will sort it out next year, I guess. I think Campos is right that swing voters will see this for what it is. I just hope the resources to make sure they’re aware of it are there.

Chron opines on Ed Johnson

The Chron follows up its story on Ed Johnson, the local GOP’s ace in the hole in the Tax Assessor’s office, with an editorial that recaps the story and gently chides Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez.

Given the recent history of his office, perhaps it’s not surprising that Vasquez would see nothing amiss in having a staffer responsible for voter registration involved in partisan campaign work on the side.

When the tax assessor stands for re-election next year, voters will have the opportunity to express their own views of such activities. In the meantime, Vasquez should order Johnson to choose between his public and private gigs and eliminate the appearance of a conflict of interest.

I think the Tax Assessor’s office deserves no benefit of the doubt, and as such Johnson should be let go, but making him choose between one job and the other would be minimally acceptable. For sure, the current setup cannot continue. It’s up to you, Leo – do you want to run a clean office or not?

What about Dwayne?

The Lone Star Project turns its attention to Ed Johnson‘s partner, State Rep. Dwayne Bohac.

[Friday], the Lone Star Project formally submitted open records requests of Dwayne Bohac, Tax Assessor Collector Leo Vasquez, Harris County DA Pat Lykos -a CDS client, and others. Given the refusal of Harris County Republican officials and Dwayne Bohac to respond responsibly to media inquiries about Ed Johnson, they must be compelled to produce records before evidence is destroyed or otherwise withheld from public or legal scrutiny.

[…]

To this point, Dwayne Bohac has said nothing to the press about his company, his activities or his employees, despite all being implicated in the scandal.  Bohac owes Harris County voters answers to at least the following questions.

Why does Bohac only sell to Harris County campaigns?
CDS claims to sell voter lists and software services, which should be applicable all over the state.  However, CDS only sells to Republican campaigns in Harris County. Is this because Ed Johnson is only available to help in Harris County?

What Harris County voter information has Bohac and Johnson obtained?
The Campaign Data Systems’ website claimed that, “Most data providers allow you to target using only registered voter data and voter history. However, CDS gives you two additional lists—drivers license data and property tax records.” (See the website) Ed Johnson’s position the with the Harris County Tax Assessor Collector, who oversees the voter registration department, may give him access to property tax data, vehicle registration data and other information in addition to the voter data for which he has full access. Bohac should tell Harris County residents what public data he has obtained and where he obtained it.

Why is Dwayne Bohac routing money through Decide Consulting?
Dwayne Bohac has never paid Campaign Data Systems from his campaign account.   Instead, he has suspiciously paid Decide Consulting more than $27,000 since 2004. Decide Consulting was founded by another Bohac business partner, David Moise.  This firm is described as a, “software management and consulting business.” Decide has no other political business listed on its website or on Texas Ethics Commission filings. These payments may be an effort by Bohac to steer profits to his business and business associates, while circumventing Texas Ethics Opinion 35 which prohibits payments to a business when the candidate owns more than a 10% stake for more than actual expenditures. As the opinion says, “the business may not make any profit on such a transaction.”

Good questions. I wonder when someone other than Pat “Conflict? What conflict?” Lykos or Leo Vasquez’s spokesperson will answer any of them. Campos has more.

Chron reports on Ed Johnson

Here’s their story about Ed Johnson and his questionable side venture as a Republican consultant. It doesn’t add much to what we already know, but it does get some local reaction, including from Johnson’s boss, Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez.

Leo Vasquez, Harris County tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, issued a statement that dismissed complaints that Johnson’s job, which can include approving or rejecting voter applications, conflicts with his side business.

“Ed Johnson is an honorable man,” Vasquez said. “It is slanderous and absolutely reprehensible to suggest without evidence that he is involved in inappropriate activity with regard to voter registration in Harris County.”

Vasquez’s spokesman, Fred King, said Johnson has been in this type of business since the mid-1990s, so his involvement in voter registration data was no secret.

“His knowledge of compiling lists and his programming expertise are the reasons Paul Bettencourt (Vasquez’s predecessor) hired him,” King said. “Vasquez may have heard of Ed’s outside business before taking office since many candidates and campaign workers knew of it.”

If it weren’t for the fact that Bettencourt did so much, especially in recent years, to politicize the Tax Assessor’s office, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. If it weren’t for the fact that there had been so many complaints, especially last year, about the way voter registration forms and provisional ballots were being handled, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. If it weren’t for the fact that Johnson had spent so much time parroting Republican fairy tales about the need for voter ID legislation in testimony before the Lege, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. Put it all together, though, and you come to the inescapable conclusion that Johnson’s moonlighting is in fact a big deal. Vasquez needs to get his head out of the sand about it.

Though it should be noted that he’s not the only Republican elected official doing the ostrich thing:

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ campaign paid more than $7,000 last year to CDS. She said late Wednesday her campaign hired CDS for targeted campaign mailers but she did not know about Johnson’s job with the county.

She insisted she saw no compromise of the elections office’s mission.

“I saw no conflict,” Lykos said.

So if it turns out that one of your ADAs has a side gig with a jury consultant who does a lot of work for criminal defense attorneys, that’ll be all right with you, Pat? I’m just checking.

More on Ed Johnson

As expected, the Lone Star Project adds quite a bit to the Ed Johnson story from yesterday. Boy, do they ever.

[Johnson] is a paid Republican campaign consultant. His company, Campaign Data Systems (CDS), has numerous Harris County Republican candidate as clients, including the Conservative Republicans of Harris County PAC, Senator Dan Patrick, and Congressman Michael McCaul. Republican State Representative Dwayne Bohac (HD 138) is also a principal owner of CDS. Johnson and Bohac are both listed on the Articles of Organization and on the CDS website as a person to contact. It is unacceptable that a county employee with unimpeded access to Voter Registration records, who can grant or deny the ability to vote to an individual, also works as a partisan political consultant.

Johnson Reviews Ballots for Harris County Races

Ed Johnson is a high-level employee in the Harris County voter registration department. In sworn testimony he has been described as, “pretty much the one that does everything.” (Deposition of Elizabeth Hernandez. Clerk/Processor)

It was also revealed that Johnson reviews provisional ballots in Harris County. Michelle Dixon, a 12 year veteran of the voter registration department said under oath that Johnson “opens the sealed envelopes of provisional ballot affidavits.” 17 year employee Kim Shoemaker said that “Ed Johnson will stand over us” during provisional ballot review. (Depositions of Michelle Dixon and Kim Shoemaker). The Houston Chronicle reported that white out was used on many provisional ballots before delivery to the Ballot Board. (Houston Chronicle, 11/12/08) Dixon also said that Johnson was in charge of purging voters from the system. (Depositions of Michelle Dixon)

You can see more excerpts from the depositions here; all such links are PDFs. This ought to be a dumb question, but does anyone really think that it’s okay for a person who works for candidates and interest groups of one political party to have that kind of influence over provisional ballots and the voter rolls? How is this not a massive conflict of interest? I know, another dumb question.

I don’t expect Johnson or anyone else in the Tax Assessor’s office, or the County Clerk’s office for that matter, to be apolitical. These are elected offices, and while the tasks they perform are clerical and should be done in a professional and nonpartisan manner, it’s fine and dandy for those tasks to be done by people who supported those elected officials. But being on the payroll of candidates and other political interests that depend on that job is going way too far. What Johnson is doing is wrong. What Dwayne Bohac did in not disclosing his business relationship with Johnson before he testified in Austin is wrong. What Leo Vasquez, and Paul Bettencourt before him, did in turning a blind eye to this (or worse, approving of it) is wrong. Johnson can work in the Tax Assessor’s office, or he can work for CDS. He can’t do both. EoW has more.

Oh, and by the way, you might notice that the links to the CDS company profile, and indeed to its home page are now 404’ing. I don’t know if this is a crude attempt to cover tracks or not, but there’s always Google cache when you need it. Nice try, Dwayne.

Ed Johnson’s conflict of interest

As you know, there was a lawsuit filed against Paul Bettencourt and the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office over allegations of illegal mishandling of provisional ballots in the past November election. That suit was later expanded to include allegations of voter disenfranchisement by Bettencourt’s office. According to KHOU, some mighty interesting facts have come out so far in the deposition phase.

“This is as blatant a case of election corruption that I have seen,” said Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project, a Democrat activist group.

The Lone Star Project’s complaint revolves around Ed Johnson.

Johnson is the associate voter registrar at the Harris County Tax Assessor Collectors office, but according to state documents, that’s just his day job. Johnson is also a paid director of a small company that provides voter data to Republican candidates for office. That company, Campaign Data Systems, billed at least $140,000 in 2008.

Campaign Data Systems happens to be owned by Republican State Rep. Dwayne Bohac, who also happens to be one of the big pushers of voter ID bills. Johnson testified before the Senate about supposed instances of vote fraud. He tells the Republicans what they want to hear in the guise of a nonpartisan election official, while being on their payroll. Nice little scam they’ve got going there, no? I think we all have a better idea now why State Reps. Garnet Coleman and Ana Hernandez called for appointed Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez’s resignation over Johnson’s (and George Hammerlein’s) testimony, and it makes Vasquez’s response look that much weaker.

I’m sure the Lone Star Project will have plenty more to say on this soon, and I’m looking forward to it. In the meantime, I’m thinking the campaign ads against Vasquez next year are going to write themselves. This is going to be fun.

Vasquez responds to Coleman and Hernandez

I received the following statement from the office of Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez, which was sent to KHOU and Fox 26 in response to the charges made by State Reps. Garnet Coleman and Ana Hernandez about the voter ID testimony given by staffers George Hammerlein and Ed Johnson.

Statement of Leo Vasquez,

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar

April 13, 2009

I am extremely disappointed in the lack of professionalism exhibited by State Representatives Coleman and Hernandez and demand from them a written apology to the dedicated public servants on my staff who they have maliciously accused of perjury. They executed this attack without first providing this office holder the professional courtesy of a face-to-face meeting.

At the specific invitation of St. Rep. Todd Smith, a colleague of Reps. Coleman and Hernandez, my office staff responded to the Chairman’s request to present data before the House Elections Committee. Our staff did so as a neutral resource witness only. I cannot imagine Reps. Coleman and Hernandez are advocating that the Harris County Tax Office should ignore the legislators of Texas. It is important to also note that our staff also took the opportunity while in Austin to work with other Democratic and Republican legislators and their staff on many other important pending legislative items.

As many of the Representatives’ miscellaneous and erroneous allegations relate to claims contained in a federal lawsuit pending against the Harris County Tax Office, it is inappropriate to make a comment on those. Any comment on pending litigation should be directed to the Harris County Attorney’s Office. I urge the Plaintiffs and their associates to try this case in a court of law, rather than in the media.

Finally, I must point out the Representatives’ poor grasp of simple facts. They boldly stated, “Leo Vasquez administers elections in Harris County.” We should be clear that I do not administer elections. I am the Voter Registrar and my office is committed to performing those duties in a non-partisan fashion, per the Texas Election Code, and on a fair and equal basis for all citizens of Harris County.

So there you have it. As I said before, there was a big lack of trust in this office by Democrats thanks to the widespread problems getting voter registrations processed last year as well as the longstanding partisan shilling of now-former Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt, and that mistrust still lingers after some early missteps by the TAC’s office after Vasquez took over. I also recommend you read Vince’s post about the disputed testimony. I think even if Ed Emmett draws a serious challenger next year, it’s clear what the top tier countywide race is going to be. Anyway, now you know what they had to say about this.