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How Ken Paxton cast a social worker registering disabled voters as Texas’ worst election criminal

Houston Chronicle 11/28/2022 Eric Dexheimer, Austin Bureau

MEXIA — Kelly Brunner had been working at the State Supported Living Center here for just over a year when her bosses at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission appointed her to the Voter Registration Liaison team.

Residents of the facility outside Waco include those diagnosed with serious psychiatric disorders; most also have been accused of crimes. Yet many remained legally eligible to vote as the 2020 general election approached. 

As a licensed social worker and former special education teacher, Brunner took her assignment seriously. “The purpose of the center is to teach residents life skills,” she said. “Part of that is teaching them how to be citizens.” 

BACKGROUND: Paxton’s $2.2M voter fraud unit closed three cases in 2021. GOP lawmakers still boosted its budget.

She explained her plan in an email that fall: With the facility in COVID lockdown, “We will be applying for mail-in ballots and we will be reading the ballot to them. We have also discussed making posters listing the candidates and their stance on key issues so that the guys can make an informed decision.”

She and other caseworkers worked for months to identify any residents who had been found incompetent to vote by a judge — an uncommon legal order. She also noted those who expressed interest in voting when they were admitted. 

Eventually, she provided 67 residents who appeared to meet all the criteria with pre-filled out voter registration applications. “If you work for a public service agency, the law says you’re required to assist the clients,” she said. Where the form asked for “Signature of applicant or agent and relationship,” Brunner signed her name and her connection to the residents — their licensed social worker — and sent the packet to the Limestone County Elections Administration. 

One of Brunner’s clients had been displaying mysterious bruises, so she assumed that was what the sheriff’s deputy wanted to discuss when she was called to the center’s administrative offices a week later. 

Instead, she was about to become one of Attorney General Ken Paxton’s top exhibits of a supposed wave of election fraud sweeping Texas and the country.

Brunner was quickly indicted for 134 election fraud crimes — one of the largest illegal voting cases filed in Texas.

Paxton, who would become an active and enthusiastic amplifier of Donald Trump’s false claim that fraud cost him the presidential race — including speaking at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally before the U.S. Capitol assault — depicted her as the worst sort of vote-stealer.

“It is particularly offensive when individuals purport to be champions for disability rights, when in reality they are abusing our most vulnerable citizens in order to gain access to their ballots and amplify their own political voice,” he said in a news release touting his agency’s role in bringing the case. He thanked local officials for “ensuring a free and fair presidential election in the face of unprecedented fraud.”

Gov. Greg Abbott also piled on: “Election fraud is real,” he told his nearly 1 million Twitter followers. Brunner — a volunteer firefighter and Little League coach — had her mugshot beamed across the country.

Over a five-month period bracketing the November 2020 election, Paxton announced the largest election fraud cases since the attorney general’s office began tracking them in 2005. In addition to Brunner’s 134 counts, there was a 142-count prosecution in Medina County, outside of San Antonio; and a case in Gregg County, in East Texas, alleging 134 felony voting crimes. 

A sprawling case filed earlier in Edinburg, in the Rio Grande Valley, tacked three dozen more onto the count.

As Texas lawmakers gathered for the 2021 legislative session, influential Republicans cited the eye-popping numbers as evidence of rampant tampering in Texas. “Voter fraud is real and failure of the states to better secure future elections will only serve to undermine public confidence in the ballot box,” U.S. Rep. Chip Roy said in April, citing the big cases. 

“There are over 400 open cases,” state Sen. Bryan Hughes told CNN. New voting rules in his Senate Bill 1 helped drop Texas to a 46-out-of-50 rank in the nation for voting accessibility, according to a recent evaluation. (Previously ranked 45th, Texas “did not have a lot of room to fall,” the Cost of Voting Index acknowledged.)

Yet over the past year, as the lens through which the alarming accusations were viewed shifted from the political to the legal, each of the huge cases has deflated into something much less. For Paxton, the result is a record of courtroom whiffs that raises questions about the purpose of filing and broadcasting such ominous-sounding cases.

“I got hit with 35 counts of election fraud for going to an assisted living facility one day and asking for votes and then leaving,” said Tomas Ramirez III, a Medina County justice of the peace whose case was dismissed two months ago. “Politics is the only explanation that makes sense to me. When you add the counts up it makes it sound like a lot of election fraud in Texas.”

Brunner concedes she misunderstood some technical instructions as she worked with the living center residents she was assigned to help register. But “I didn’t intentionally do anything wrong,” she said. “They charged me with fraud for their own political gain. I am collateral damage.” 

Fraud-hunting with Trump

Trump began planting the seed of a fraud-riddled vote in the months leading up to November 2020. "The only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged," he said in August. Following Joe Biden’s victory by more than 7 million popular and 74 electoral college votes, Trump continued claiming the election was stolen even as court decisions concluding otherwise piled up.

Paxton recently had expanded his agency’s efforts to root out examples of Texans subverting the ballot. As members of the House Elections Committee gathered to identify urgent priorities for the 2021 legislative session, the attorney general’s top voter fraud lieutenants were summoned to testify.

Josh Reno, the unit’s top attorney, warned of a grim trend the agency had observed. For years the unit had handled mostly small cases with a few criminal charges. But now, he said, “What I’m going to talk to you about is the number of charges that have increased for prosecution.”

“We’ve got about 500-and-something cases currently pending in criminal courts,” Reno continued, mixing up cases with the number of individual charges. “A little over 400 of those have been filed in the last 12 months. I cannot tell you why. I cannot give you the explanation for it. All I can tell you is we are seeing this trend.”

Driving the alarming numbers, added Jonathan White, the chief prosecutor, was a handful of major vote-harvesting cases — organized attempts to subvert elections. He referenced the Edinburg, Gregg County and Medina County cases, which accounted for the majority of the 500 or so pending charges. Brunner’s 134 counts made up most of the remainder.

Yet in some ways, the trend identified by Paxton’s office appears self-created. 

Piling up identical criminal charges on certain defendants can make sense, said Shannon Edmonds, head of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. According to Texas law, charging a separate crime against child pornographers for each image, for example, can result in a lengthy prison term because the sentences for each conviction are served consecutively.

With election fraud, however, Edmonds said stacking dozens of the same charge on a single defendant provides no courtroom payoff because each sentence runs concurrently. A person convicted of one or 100 identical counts of election fraud receives the same penalty.

So “why do it?” Edmonds said. “I can’t say.”

Paxton's office did not respond to questions.

Not-guilty in Edinburg

The first of the big cases to fizzle was in Gregg County.

Prosecutors and local politicians announced an investigation soon after county commissioner candidate Shannon Brown won the March 2018 Precinct 4 primary by only five votes. But it wasn’t until six weeks before the 2020 general election that Paxton unveiled a 134-count indictment charging Brown, his wife and two election workers with illegally rounding up mail ballots.

“We have a county commissioner under indictment for mail ballot fraud,” Hughes said last year at a signing ceremony for his elections bill in nearby Tyler. “Anybody who tells you there is no voter fraud in Texas is telling you a very big lie.”

Early this year, however, the case quietly and dramatically shriveled. Each defendant admitted to a single misdemeanor infraction. Brown, who apologized for one technical election code violation, stayed in office. (He lost re-election in this spring’s Democratic primary.)

Officials have repeatedly refused to explain how a 134-felony indictment deflated to a four-misdemeanor violation. District Attorney Tom Watson, who is leaving office at the end of the year, did not return calls.

Another signature case took a hit this summer when a Hidalgo County jury acquitted former Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina of 12 counts of election fraud.

Molina was arrested in 2019 for “orchestrating an organized illegal voting scheme,” according to an attorney general's office news release. Prosecutors said he tried to persuade voters to change their addresses — in some cases to an apartment complex he owned — so they could vote for him.

Molina, who won the 2017 race by more than 1,200 votes, said the case was instigated by a political opponent. At his August trial, he said he had relied on published opinions from the Texas Secretary of State and attorney general to try to decipher a vague state law describing where a person could claim to live for voting purposes. He noted the Legislature changed the law in 2021 to include more precise language.

“Nobody tried to hide anything,” added his lawyer, Jaime Pena. 

It is unclear how Molina’s verdict will affect the still-pending cases of his wife and more than a dozen residents alleged to have reported moving into Edinburg to vote for him. 

Another case dissolves

A month later, Paxton’s 142-count Medina County case began disintegrating when a judge dismissed all charges against Ramirez. 

A small-town lawyer in Devine, Ramirez had decided to run for Precinct 4 justice of the peace in 2018. A friend and old legal client invited him to campaign at her residential home for mentally disabled adults a few blocks from Ramirez’s law office.

The residents “have always voted,” Brenda Burford said. If a politician sought their support, “I’d tell them, ‘Come over and bring some Cokes or something. You tell them, ‘I’m running for this; remember my name.’ That’s all you’ve got to do.”

“I met with people in the waiting room,” Ramirez recalled. “I handed out cards and left — maybe stayed a total of 15 minutes.” He later visited another residential center just outside of Devine.

Three years later — two years after he took office — Ramirez was indicted on 35 counts of election fraud.

A county elections official became suspicious after noticing the same signatures of a handful of workers on residents’ paperwork, a violation of state law strictly limiting who can sign on behalf of a voter. Investigators examining the ballots found many residents had voted only in the JP race, for Ramirez.

Burford pointed out he was also the only candidate who bothered to visit. Police reports show investigators built their case in part by asking relatives of the residents if their loved ones had the intellectual capacity to vote.

Yet whether a disabled person appears competent to vote is irrelevant, said Molly Broadway, an elections specialist with Disability Rights Texas. Until a judge specifically removes the right, Texas law says he or she may participate in elections.

Ramirez was removed from the bench while charges against him were pending. His case was tossed last month for legal reasons after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the attorney general’s office could not initiate election fraud cases unilaterally without permission from local prosecutors.

Ramirez said he didn’t want that to give people the wrong idea. “This isn’t a technicality in any way; I’m completely innocent of these charges,” he said. 

Although charges against the three care facility workers remain pending, their attorneys said they expect them to be dismissed because of the same court decision.

Thrown 'to the wolves'

Emails from summer 2020 show caseworkers at the Mexia facility struggled to understand how the state’s complicated voting laws applied to living center residents. They wondered about legal eligibility versus mental capacity and exchanged lists of clients as they tried to determine who wanted to vote and who legally could.  

“How would I know if a court has deemed them eligible to vote?” one asked in early September. “I’m not trying to be funny, but I really don’t know what the voting parameters are out here anymore,” another wrote in early October. 

After compiling a list of residents who seemed eligible and interested, Brunner signed and sent the registration applications to the county in late September. 

Brunner’s main crime appears to have been a terminology mix-up. “It is absolutely within the role of social worker to assist residents of these facilities,” said Lisa Snead, a Disability Rights Texas attorney who works closely with the state living centers. But she signed as an “agent” — a narrow legal designation that under Texas law can be performed only by a close relative who is a qualified voter in the same county.

Because Brunner’s violation was so glaring — social workers can’t be agents — it was easily caught. 

“It was pretty obvious,” said Limestone County Elections Administrator Jennifer Southard, adding that none of the improperly registered Mexia clients voted in the election: “Our system worked.” 

Snead cited another reason the applications may have received so much scrutiny. “There remains an assumption that people with intellectual disabilities or people in facilities do not have the capacity to vote,” she said. “So registrations and applications submitted by or for them are somehow inherently indicative of fraud or inappropriate influence."

Back at the living center, Brunner’s life began unraveling. After the sheriff’s deputy questioned her, she sent a panicked email to Mexia’s director: “How can the state tell me to do something and then just throw me to the wolves when someone questions it?”

The center’s director said she told investigators Brunner was “just trying to afford all of our folks the opportunity to vote,” but Brunner was charged in late October. In addition to improperly signing the applications, she was accused of helping register clients who had not actively requested it, as well as trying to register residents who were legally prohibited from voting. 

“People were going, “No! Not Kelly,” recalled Dave Maner, a Mexia colleague. “She’s one of the best social workers I’ve ever met.” 

Limestone County District Attorney William Roy DeFriend did not respond to multiple interview requests by phone and email. But determining if a person’s voting rights have been officially terminated can be confusing and even disputed, said longtime Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman. 

Three days after the November election, with Trump’s claims of vote-stealing dominating headlines, Paxton tweeted Brunner’s case as a despicable example of election tampering. The mischaracterization has stuck.

“She was taking ballots from the clients and voting on their behalf, all for Biden,” Lance Phillips, chair of the Limestone County Republican Party, said in a recent interview. 

Brunner was fired in December 2020 for "violation of rules." She borrowed money to pay for her legal defense. (Her attorney, Jeff Kearney, did not return numerous phone calls and emails.) She was threatened on social media.

Facing 10 years in prison, in April she agreed to take a deal sentencing her to probation. “I didn’t want to take any chances, especially in this political environment,” she said. 

She said she has struggled to explain to her mother why Texas’ most powerful men would want to cast a conscientious social worker as one of the state’s worst voter fraud criminals. “I just tell her,” Brunner said, “you can’t make sense out of nonsense.”

eric.dexheimer@chron.com

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