When seven voters in a suburb north of Houston set out to upend an election there, they didn’t realize the powerful contingent they were upsetting.
The Woodlands voters are being prosecuted for fraud in a 2010 election for claiming residency at a hotel in the Woodlands Road Utility District. The district is supported by well-heeled developers and represented by a law firm that’s donated tens of thousands of dollars to state campaigns including that of Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office is prosecuting the case.
Records show that Abbott has received $14,500 in campaign contributions since 2002 from the law firm Schwartz, Page, & Harding, which handles legal affairs for the Woodland Road Utility District as well as Woodlands Township and several other districts in The Woodlands.
The legal complaint to the state that led to the indictment in March of the alleged illegal voters was submitted not by local legal authorities but by James Stilwell, an attorney representing the sitting board members of the Woodland utility district.
Stilwell outlined the alleged infractions in a Sept. 10, 2010, letter to Ann McGeehan, director of the elections division of the Texas Secretary of State office.
Stilwell cc’ed the secretary of state’s general counsel and Mike Page of Schwartz, Page, & Harding. But he also cc’ed several others with no apparent connection to the case, including state Sen. Tommy Williams on the complaint, as well as state Rep. Rob Eissler and Bruce Tough, chairman of The Woodlands Township. Williams and Eissler’s districts include the utility district.
An Abbott spokesman said the case was accepted on the referral of the Secretary of State.
Stilwell did not return calls or emails.
The Williams campaign fund has received $25,500 from Schwartz, Page, & Harding since 2003. Eissler’s campaign has received $19,000 from the firm since 2002.
A lawyer representing one of the indicted voters, Kelly Case, said he will explore any involvement by Williams, “once we depose him or subpoena him to testify, as we are planning to do.” Williams did not return calls or e-mails for comment.
Case claimed that the charges were filed despite the reluctance of Montgomery District Attorney Brett Ligon.
“…Ligon refused to prosecute these cases as he did not feel that they were criminal violations,” Case said. “He continues to maintain that position. I suppose that after not being able to convince Mr. Ligon to file charges, that Stilwell sought satisfaction elsewhere.”
Ligon, though, said his office, hindered by its relatively small size, took statements and handed the case to the voter fraud division of the AG’s office, which did its own investigation. In an interview, Ligon said he grappled with the notion of “state of mind” residency that the state uses in most cases.
“The secretary of state’s office said it comes down to state of mind,” Ligon said. “That is very difficult to pursue.”
Abbott has made strong statements in the past about the need to police voter fraud and his commitment to doing so.
His office has prosecuted numerous cases of voter fraud, mostly South Texas cases of vote harvesting in the Hispanic community.
Abbott in April claimed the need for the state’s voter ID law to be upheld by the feds, citing 57 election fraud prosecutions beginning in 2012.
Of those, most have involved illegal possession of another’s ballot, and a number of the cases fell under the broad charge of illegal voting, which can involve anything from voting while ineligible to voter impersonation.
The Woodlands voters were indicted in March, accused of illegal voting by registering at a hotel within the boundaries of the RUD and using the hotel as their home address. The Woodlands seven were frustrated at not having a voice in the special district, which has issued $75 million in debt since its formation in 1991.
In the district’s first election, they were hoping to gain enough votes to remove the sitting board members. They relied on previous statements from state election officials that claimed the residency requirement can be determined “by the voter.” Joined by three others who were never indicted, they won the election and removed three sitting board members by a 10-2 vote. The results were later overturned by a sitting judge in Montgomery County.
The utility district board until 2010 met in an 11th floor room at 24 Waterway, a building owned by Woodlands land baron and multimillionaire developer Dirk Laukien, who was one of two voters, along with his wife, Kate, casting votes that allowed the three sitting board members of the district up for re-election to remain in light of the judge’s ruling.
The Laukiens were the only registered voters in the district prior to the failed registration of the Woodlands activists, according to an email six weeks before the election from Page to Adrian Heath, the leader of the rogue voters.
The 11th floor office is also the registered address for the Woodlands Development Co PAC, which has delivered $2,500 to state Sen. Williams since 2007.
Suite 1100 is also the address listed over the last several years for a number of power broker companies in the development game around The Woodlands.
The Woodlands Operating Co. was registered to the address briefly in 2009, state records show. Richard Derr, who is treasurer of the PAC, represented the operating company at district meetings for years. Derr, in fact, made suggestions on projects to the board, according to meeting minutes.
The RUD wrote checks in 2008 and 2009 to the Woodlands Land Development Corp., which records show is managed by an operation called TWLDC Holdings GP, L.L.C. which also listed on state records in 2010 its address as 24 Waterway, #1100.
Case said he believes that Abbott’s office “is trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. … Either that or someone with a political ax to grind has made this their cause.”
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or email@example.com.
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