Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Leo Vasquez

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.

Dems versus Vasquez

Looks like we’re not ready to make nice with the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office over their handling of voter registration last year.

Any honeymoon between Democrats and the new Harris County voter registrar ended suddenly today.

Democratic state Reps. Garnet Coleman and Ana Hernandez of Houston said Leo Vasquez, who is tax assessor-collector and voter registration chief, is responsible for staffers who allegedly misled state legislators considering whether to require voters to offer more proof of identification before casting ballots.

“It is up to (Vasquez) to clean up his office,” Coleman and Hernandez said in a news media handout. “Otherwise, Leo needs to go.”

[…]

Vasquez, saying he is running the registration agency without regard to politics and will not join the GOP frontlines, since has expanded voter registration efforts and hired a Democrat to help with community outreach.

He said today that testimony in Austin last week on the “voter ID” bill by voter registration staffers George Hammerlein and Ed Johnson was no partisan move. The pair, called to testify by Republican lawmakers, took no position on the bill and provided facts as requested, Vasquez said.

Coleman and Hernandez never have taken their concerns to him, Vasquez said, and they owe his staffers an apology for making baseless allegations.

The Democrats today zeroed in on Hammerlein’s legislative testimony, several hours into hearing that ran past midnight, that thousands of Harris County residents who registered to vote on time were not eligible to participate in early voting two weeks later because they applied relatively late.

Hammerlein acknowledged today that his statement was wrong and said it was due to the strange hour rather than any attempt to mislead the Legislature.

I’ve reprinted the press release beneath the fold, and a copy of the doc that spelled out the allegations against Hammerlein and Johnson is here. I’ve been hearing some grumbling about the way things have been run at the Tax Assessor’s office, in particular complaints about being told that deputy registrars could not deliver new registration forms to annex offices. That turned out to be a case of miscommunication between the head office and the annexes. Perhaps that’s to be expected with a change in command, but it wasn’t a good first impression and it didn’t help alleviate any of the lingering mistrust left over from the Bettencourt days. It’s not surprising, given the stakes in the voter ID fight, that Vasquez isn’t being cut any slack. Stace has more.

Meanwhile, immigration attorney and former Houston City Council member Gordon Quan has an op-ed about voter ID and the Betty Brown incident.

While some will argue that this increases the integrity of the ballot, in reality, voter ID requirements have been overwhelmingly shown to disproportionately disenfranchise older Americans, individuals with disabilities, low income and homeless people, students, married women, minorities and most poignantly, those who, for cultural reasons, may have differing names on differing identification documents. According to the nation’s largest exit poll of Asian Americans, nearly 70 percent of Asian voters were asked for ID at the polls — in states where no ID was required!

Voter ID requirements put an inordinate amount of discretion in the hands of already overworked poll workers. Our state and county election offices already find themselves constantly struggling to find the resources to adequately train poll workers and to recruit diverse poll workers who are versed in every possible cultural circumstance that they may encounter. This legislation would take precious funds away from those programs as well as from real priorities such as transportation and education. As evidenced by this episode with Brown and the Elections Committee, even individuals as well versed in the law as they are were unable to understand the complexities associated with Asian names as they relate to voting. Just imagine the difficulty a poll worker would have and how they could easily not allow an eligible voter even with a valid voter registration card to vote.

If you want to discuss this issue in more detail, there will be a conference call Thursday night with Ramey Ko, US Rep. Mike Honda, State Rep. Hubert Vo, Mini Timmaraju of the Asian American Democrats of Texas, and others. The AAA Fund blog has the details. You can submit a question for Ramey Ko ahead of time, but you must RSVP to join the call, so click over for the info if you’re interested.

UPDATE: Vince has more on Hammerlein’s testimony.

Making reregistration easier

This is a positive step.

In Harris County, the voter registration office is starting to anticipate your next move.

County Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez has put together a coalition of private organizations and large employers to make sure that residents who move within or to the county get an on-the-spot chance to fill out fresh voter registration applications.

Moving into an apartment or buying a dwelling involves signing lots of papers. Now the Houston Apartment Association and the Texas Land Title Association will make sure the papers include voter registration forms, Vasquez said Wednesday.

Continental Airlines and the Houston Independent School District are the first employers to join the coalition by ensuring that registration forms go to workers who update their personnel records with new addresses.

“Let’s hit people when they are trying to make one of those moves,” said Vasquez, who was appointed in December to succeed fellow Republican Paul Bettencourt, who resigned from his elected post.

Any effort made to update these records in a timely fashion is an improvement over what we had before, and I applaud Vasquez for making that effort. There are still some holes here – what if you’re moving to a garage apartment or rental house, or you’re moving in with someone? – which makes me wonder if it might not be better to involve the Post Office in this, to get people who are filling out change of address forms there. Perhaps that can be added on later. In any event, as I said, this is better than what we had before, and the change in attitude is refreshing as well.

Vasquez officially selected to replace Bettencourt

As expected.

Harris County Commissioners Court today appointed Republican businessman Leo Vasquez to fill the vacancy left by resigning tax assessor-collector Paul Bettencourt.

[…]

Vasquez said he first will focus on customer service and efficiency and plans to meet with each department and with community stakeholders during his first 100 days in office.

He said he has enjoyed working behind-the-scenes in Republican politics and is looking forward to the opportunity to “see if I could do some more to help improve efficient government, smaller government and better government for Harris County.”

This is the early version of the story, so it doesn’t indicate whether Commissioner Sylvia Garcia pressed him on the subject of voter registration, and if so what answers she got and whether they satisfied her enough to vote for his confirmation. I presume a later version of the story will have those details, and I’ll update accordingly when it does.

I don’t know what else there is to say about Leo Vasquez except that I hope he’s an improvement over Paul Bettencourt – the alternative is too hideous to contemplate – and that I hope he gets a serious challenger in 2010. I predict he’ll get a Republican challenge for the 2010 primary, as that seems to be the norm for the appointed replacements like him – Ed Emmett, Theresa Chang, and all three judges filling unexpired seats drew competition this past March. He’ll probably survive, unlike Willie Alexander, but you never know.

And at long last, we can now be told what the greener pastures Bettencourt sought out really were:

Bettencourt said Tuesday he is leaving the county to open a property tax consulting firm in southeast Texas.

“I’m going to do my passion in life which is to run a mid-size start-up and help people save some money on their expenses for next year,” he said as he bid farewell to the court on Tuesday.

Yeah, and he just happened to finally give in to the urge for that passion right after Election Day, and not a minute before. Makes perfect sense to me. All I can say is that to give up a cushy government job for a startup when you’ve got two college-age kids, you must have a lot of confidence in your ability to make it work.

UPDATE: Here’s the updated story.

Commissioners Court voted 4-1 to appoint Vasquez to fill the first two years of Bettencourt’s four-year term. He said he plans to run for the seat in 2010, when a special election will be held for the remainder of the term.

Democratic Commissioners El Franco Lee and Sylvia Garcia first nominated Diane Trautman, Bettencourt’s opponent in the November election, saying half a million voters wanted to see her take the job. All three Republican court members voted against her appointment without comment.

Lee said he voted against Vasquez’s appointment because he had not met him.

“I can’t vote on somebody I haven’t met,” he said.

So Commissioner Garcia ultimately voted for Vasquez. She isn’t quoted, so I can only presume her questions about him were answered satisfactorily. I’m glad she and Commissioner Lee nominated Diane Trautman, even if the politics of it were doomed.

While Bettencourt used the office to champion conservative causes, earning scorn from the left and accusations that he let politics bleed into his duties as the county’s voter registrar, Vasquez said he expects the office to take on a different tenor under his administration.

He said he eventually may speak out on some political issues, such as appraisal caps. And he hopes to be an ambassador for the Republican Party in the Hispanic community and an ambassador for Hispanics in the Republican community.

But for now, at least, he said his main focus will be on meeting with employees and constituents to craft a strategic plan for making the office even more user-friendly and efficient.

“The politics will come in due time, but let’s focus on efficiency at the office,” he said.

[…]

He said he would try to make voter registration a year-round effort, not just a last-second push shortly before an election. For example, he proposed requiring all county employees to ask people submitting address changes if they also have updated their voter registration.

“I believe that the tax assessor-collector’s duties and operations are truly a nonpartisan issue,” he said. “It affects everyone in Harris County. Not just Republicans. Not just Democrats.”

Nice words. We’ll see if they mean anything. Good luck with the job, Mr. Vasquez.