DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A new federal task force battling corruption in Texas seems determined not to give in. NPR's John Burnett has been reporting on their work in the Rio Grande Valley, and this morning, his third and final story. His focus is a part of Texas where corruption is a fact of life. According to the Justice Department, in 2013, more public officials were convicted for corruption in South Texas than in any other region of the country, which explains why this new anti-corruption task force is trying to clean up the Valley. This morning, John looks at efforts to crack down on candidates who routinely pay political operatives to harvest votes, sometimes illegally.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: They're called politiqueras - campaign workers. It's a time-honored tradition down here in a region known for grapefruit orchards and Border Patrol checkpoints. If a local candidate needs dependable votes, they go to a politiquera, someone like Herminia Becerra, the self-anointed queen of politiqueras in Brownsville.
HERMINIA BECERRA: (Singing in Spanish).
BURNETT: That's Herminia singing one of her original campaign songs. With her short, white hair and quick, flashing eyes, she says she's been working in political campaigns for nearly 60 of her 86 years. She's one of the rare politiqueras in the Valley willing to do an interview. Becerra says she's never been indicted for election fraud and has nothing to hide. She says all she does is talk to voters, hold political signs and shout into a bullhorn. If I were a candidate and I needed 200 votes, which in these small precincts can win a race, could she help me?
BECERRA: (Through interpreter) Oh, yes, I know it can be done because I've done it. I know lots of people, and people know me. If I do a favor for you, you're grateful, and your whole family's grateful. And you're going to tell your whole family, help Herminia.
BURNETT: In recent years, losing candidates in local elections began to challenge the dark arts of vote harvesting in the Rio Grande Valley, and they shared their investigations with the authorities. After the 2012 election cycle, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Texas Attorney General's Office filed charges against politiqueras. In the town of Donna, five politiqueras pleaded guilty to election fraud. Voters were bribed with cigarettes, beer or dime bags of cocaine. In neighboring Cameron County, nine politiqueras have been charged with manipulating mail-in ballots. James Sturgis is an assistant U.S. attorney in McAllen, part of the federal effort to root out corruption in the Valley.
JAMES STURGIS: Yes, there is concern in which the politiqueras are being paid to then go and essentially round up voters and have them vote a certain way.
BURNETT: Hustling votes has a rich political history in America. Chicagoans have been known to vote from beyond the grave. Democratic machines from New Orleans to New York have hauled voters to the polls. In the Valley, it's all about mail-in ballots. A politiquera has a friendly relationship with a group of elderly voters who are eligible to use mail-in ballots. They may be nursing home residents, neighbors or clients at activity centers for seniors.
(SOUNDBITE OF CITIZENS AGAINST VOTER ABUSE VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: This is a video of an elderly Mexican-American woman sitting alone in her public housing apartment, explaining how a politiquera helped her vote in 2012. The interview was conducted by Citizens Against Voter Abuse, which works to expose and reform the politiquera system in South Texas. The founder, Mary Helen Flores, says this voter's story is typical.
MARY HELEN FLORES: She has been cultivated by this particular politiquera who works that building to give up her vote every election. And the lady will - under the guise of helping her, will come and take her ballot from her and say, well, I'm going to go mail it for you. And in that way, the mail-in ballots are manipulated.
BURNETT: In the Cameron County indictments, politiqueras are alleged to have charged political candidates $10 to $20 for every mail-in ballot they delivered. Under Texas election law, an elderly or disabled voter can use a helper, but that person, the politiquera, cannot collect the voter's ballot and then fill it out and mail it later. Longtime Valley political strategist Mike Carrera says he's glad that prosecutors are weeding out unscrupulous politiqueras, but that doesn't mean they're all bad. Carrera says the ones he hires are paid to know their precinct's voting habits - nothing more.
MIKE CARRERA: In every profession, you have extremists. Ninety-five percent of the politiqueras who operate in Hidalgo County don't operate like that. They're paying for votes.
BURNETT: A former campaign manager in Brownsville agreed to talk if he wasn't named because politiqueras are under investigation. He said a few years ago, they paid $3,000 a week for 15 politiqueras to work the mail-in ballots in a local race. He said the campaign did not ask them to break the law, just deliver votes. He said Herminia Becerra was one of the politiqueras they hired, a claim she vehemently denies.
BECERRA: (Through interpreter) Don't ask me if people pay me to get them votes. Ask God. He will say no, Herminia didn't get paid. She helps the people. I'm only interested in helping the poor because I come from poverty.
BURNETT: The reason activist Mary Helen Flores says it's important to clean up Valley elections is because they need honest leaders to address the rates of high poverty and low educational achievement, not officeholders who pad their nests.
FLORES: In Brownsville, some of these candidates do hire politiqueras, get in office and immediately begin to get their friends jobs, get contracts to their friends and family members. We don't have any enforcement of conflict of interest laws here, so they can do whatever they want basically, and they have.
BURNETT: The indictments of politiqueras in the Rio Grande Valley may be having an effect. In the Democratic primaries in Cameron County for three justice of the peace offices, between elections in 2012 and 2014, the number of mail-in ballots dropped 97 percent. John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville.
GREENE: John's series on the Rio Grande Valley was produced by NPR's Marisa Penaloza, and you heard it on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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