Fort Worth

Breaking Crystal: Texas illegal voter freed by feds to fight 5-year state prison sentence

Less than three months after Donald Trump tweeted that he would have won the popular vote if not for the millions of illegal ballots cast in Hillary Clinton’s favor, Crystal Mason was arrested for voting illegally in the 2016 presidential election.

As the popular vote totals for the election were being announced, Trump estimated that as many as 3 million to 5 million ballots may have been illegally cast, with nearly all of them in favor of Clinton, according to published reports.

Mason, who authorities said lost her right to vote because of a previous felony record, was sentenced to five years in prison in March 2018 by State District Judge Ruben Gonzalez. The 44-year-old African-American mother of three is appealing the conviction.

“I went to the same polling place that I went to before being incarcerated to actually vote again because I thought I had that right still,” Mason said. “I didn’t see it in any of my judgment, commitment paperwork saying that I didn’t.”

Mason is coming to the end of serving a 10-month sentence ordered by a Fort Worth federal judge who revoked her term of supervised release in August 2018. The revocation was triggered by the illegal voting conviction.

Mason is scheduled to be released from federal custody Friday and a party is planned for the next day. Everyone is supposed to wear white. Mason will remain on federal supervised released for another two years and two months while she fights her state court conviction.

Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said Mason was offered the option of probation in this case, which she refused. Mason chose to have a trial by judge, and the judge found beyond a reasonable doubt from the evidence that she knew she was not eligible to vote and voted anyway. He then set her sentence, Wilson said.

“We are bound ethically to follow the laws of this state,” Wilson said. “Prosecuting a four-time felon for once again breaking the law is not a scare tactic. The only ones who have ever tried to politicize this case are Mason and her representatives. No one has anything to fear from our office unless the person chooses to break the law.”

Mason returned to federal prison in September and was incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, at a federal residential facility in Hutchins, and she is serving the final month of her sentence on home confinement.

Since 2016, only two others in Tarrant County have been convicted due to a voting irregularity.

Charles Jackson, a homeless man, was convicted of making a false statement on an application and sentenced to 10 days in the Tarrant County jail. Russ Casey, a former Tarrant County justice of the peace, was sentenced to five years’ probation for falsifying signatures to secure a place on the Republican primary ballot.

Texas is also pursuing prosecutions for Leticia Sanchez, Leticia Sanchez Tepichin, Maria Solis and Laura Parra, four women accused of involvement in a Tarrant County voter fraud ring. This new prosecution filed by the Texas Attorney General’s Office is taking place in a year when the office is pursuing prosecutions involving voting irregularities at a faster rate.

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has investigated or prosecuted 135 individuals for various voting irregularities since 2005 and charged them with 454 counts where some resolution has been reached, according to figures from his office.

Between 2005 and 2015, the Attorney General’s office prosecuted or investigated 117 cases, for an average of 11.7 cases a year. But between 2016 and 2018, the office investigated or prosecuted 35 cases for an average of 17.5 cases a year, records from Paxton’s office show. Resolutions are pending in 18 cases the office is actively pursuing.

‘I didn’t let my past be my crutch’

Mason was originally sentenced to five years in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2011 to inflating her clients’ tax returns when she and her husband operated a tax preparation business. She was released from federal custody early after being locked up three years. After her release she worked to rebuild her life by going to school at night and getting a job during the day.

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Crystal Mason, a Texas woman sentenced for illegally voting in 2016, says she was targeted and is appealing her state conviction. Mason sits next to her mother, Sherrian McGrady, in their home, Wednesday, July 3, 2019, in Fort Worth. Yffy Yossifor yyossifor@star-telegram.com

Mason said she has been working through a staffing service for a state agency for the past two weeks, but on Tuesday she was fired. The management will not say why they released her, Mason said. The employer was told about the situation in advance and by her own estimation, her work ethic has been good, Mason said.

But Mason speculated that the notoriety brought by her case and trial have caused some business operators to be skittish. Mason said her termination came without warning — that the job was supplying her with new equipment and because of their seeming acceptance, she believed they might employ her permanently.

“I asked him [her manager] about why he was letting me go and he couldn’t even look at me,” Mason said. “After struggling to answer he told me that because I was a contract employee, he had no obligation to tell me why I was being let go.”

Mason said that after she was released from federal prison she was able to get a job at an international company and work there for a year. But once news of her state conviction became public she was fired, Mason said. After she was fired she filed for unemployment benefits, Mason said.

When she asked officials with the unemployment office why she was fired, they told her that she was terminated due to adverse publicity, Mason said.

“My past never stopped me from moving forward,” Mason said. “I got out and got a job and in the back of my head I’m still fighting this five-year sentence, but at the end of the day, I didn’t let my past be my crutch. I know my situation and the world knows my situation. That’s why I came into work early every day and did everything I could to let employers know how much I appreciate you giving me this second chance. It’s just right here, right now. Every move that I make, everything that I’m doing is being closely watched. After I got out after trying to vote, that’s what has changed for me.”

Mason was arrested in February 2017, during an appointment with her probation officer, and charged with illegal voting because she had not fully completed her federal sentence, according to prosecutors. U.S. District Judge John McBryde revoked Mason’s term of supervised release and sentenced her to federal prison for 10 months.

McBryde said at the time that he was doing her a favor. He could have sentenced her to two years.

“It’s been very difficult,” Mason said. “I told my kids that I would never leave them again. I was hoping that he [McBryde] would listen to me this time. I was going to school. I had a job. But it was like he had already made his mind up. It was like he didn’t see me.”

Mason’s attorney, Alison Grinter, said she knew before walking into McBryde’s court that saving Mason from doing time in federal custody would be an uphill battle. Getting any post-conviction reversal is an uphill battle, she said. The trial courts are more cautious in the way they interpret the law, Grinter said.

“We need elected representatives who don’t see this as an existential threat to Texans voting,” Grinter said. “I think if we can get this before the federal courts we have a chance, but I hope the state courts do the right thing.”

It’s unfair to blame voter intimidation efforts on Trump’s Twitter comments, said Grinter and others opposed to Mason’s five-year sentence. Trump’s comment about illegal ballots is a symptom of America’s uneasiness about voting security, illegal immigration, and changing demographics — not a cause, they said.

“This is about making sure communities of color are over-policed and over-prosecuted,” Grinter said. “This is the last gasp of a dying power structure that believes making sure communities of color don’t vote is their only viable survival strategy. Reaching out and speaking to the people you are going to represent would actually be a better idea, but that’s not what they’re doing here. And I think it’s having the intended effect.”

Her children will vote, despite the apparent risks

Everyone in Crystal Mason’s house says they will vote in the upcoming elections.

But Taylor Hobbs, Mason’s 20-year-old daughter who shares a birthday with her mother, has future election plans for herself.

“I want to be a judge,” she said. “I’ve wanted to be a judge since my mom’s first case. My mom’s case pushed me. We don’t have a lot of fair judges now. So I want to change that.”

Taylor Hobbs, Crystal Mason
Taylor Hobbs, Crystal Mason’s daughter, talks about taking on more responsibilities while her mother was incarcerated, Wednesday, July 3, 2019, in Fort Worth. Yffy Yossifor yyossifor@star-telegram.com

A lot of the responsibility for running the household and her mother’s event center fell on her shoulders after Mason went to prison, Hobbs said. Every day Mason sent lists filled with things to do and held video chats and e-mails with instructions. Then Mason checked back to make sure the children and her mother accomplished their daily tasks.

While Mason was in prison, Hobbs learned organizational skills, problem solving and humility.

“I tried to do promoting,” Hobbs said. “I tried, I tried, that’s all I can say. I tried to get people inside the building to book the building. It was not easy. We kept the lights on. We were able to keep the building, pay the rent. Talking about it is one thing, but when it comes down to doing it, it was never easy.”

Hobbs told her mother that she had been disappointed because Mason never told her that she was proud of what she had done. But Mason replied that it never occurred to her that Hobbs would not do what was needed to keep the family afloat.

“That was because I knew you could do it,” Mason said.

Hobbs, her brother, Sanford, 19, and Mason’s godson, Keevion Candler, 21, all work for the same company, Mason said. Everyone chips in to try and catch up with the bills that have become delinquent during her prison stay. Everyone’s plans to go to school are on hold. Mason’s niece, Jasmin Jones, 20, said she will get a job once her daughter is born. The baby is due on July 22, Jones said.

Right now, Mason said she just needs everyone to stay put.

“We’re just waiting to see what happens,” Jones said. “We want to be positive about the situation she’s going through right now. I told her she was a strong woman. I told her to stay strong.”

Her three biological children, her brother’s two children who live with her, the godson who lives with her, and Mason’s mother, refuse to acknowledge the possibility that Mason could be going back to prison. The children say it is a matter of their faith in God that they will not “speak that into existence.”

The younger children who live in the household have not been told there is a possibility that Mason could return to prison. For the past nine months the younger children, grandson, 10, and a granddaughter, 4, have not been told that Mason was in prison. The older children reinforced the lie. The younger children will have plenty of time to hear about Mason’s conviction when they get older, the family said.

Mason lives with her children in a sprawling two-story ranch house about 30 miles south of downtown Fort Worth. The neighborhood is isolated by acres of pasture and there is nothing to do out there except work, her children say. Mason said she moved there in 2008 with the idea of keeping her children out of trouble.

“I see kids having a hard time and I take them in,” Mason said. “I get them in school, I get them on their feet, and then they leave. And if for some reason they get in trouble again, they can always come back.”

Mason and her family say they do not need or want anyone’s pity. But they do need people to help her fight.

“We’ve gotten so much support from people all around the world,” said Mason’s son, Sanford Hobbs. “But we could always use more.”

So far, Mason’s GoFundMe page has raised more than $39,000 in 15 months.

Texas has a long unproven history of voting fraud

Mason’s case was cited as an example of pervasive illegal voting in Texas, while others argued that Mason was made into an example to discourage African-Americans and other minorities from going to the polls.

Neither position is supported by available facts, according to some others.

Michael Kasino, director of the documentary “Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook,” said the concept of one citizen, one vote has been compromised by politicians on the right and the left.

“Rigged” shows how gerrymandering and voter purges, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, erode the voting public’s rights and wishes, according to the film makers. The film captures real-time voter intimidation in Texas and voter purges in North Carolina.

But finding evidence of acts of illegal voting can be tough, Kasino said.

“Voter fraud is very difficult to document,” he said. “It’s like finding a unicorn. It’s all behind the scenes, it’s all subtext. A hundred people worked on this film for three years and over the course of those three years we were able to find three unicorns.”

Finding data on incidents of illegal voting is a shared problem with a long history. Stories of intrigue about how Lyndon Johnson won his 1948 Senate race and how John Kennedy won his 1960 presidential race are stuff of Texas lore.

But in the face of that history, Texas voting rolls remain in shambles and conversations about repairing the rolls are still in their infant stage, according to Jason Snead, Heritage Foundation senior political analyst.

The Heritage Foundation has a voting fraud database that lists 89 Texas cases going back to 2005. Critics of voting integrity measures say given that more than 8 million ballots are cast in Texas during a single general election, less than 90 illegal voters over a 14-year span does not seem like a criminal epidemic that must be addressed.

But the database is only a representation of the way fraud is committed, Snead said. The Heritage database is not comprehensive and not representative of voting irregularity prosecutions. No one is really keeping that type of data and what Heritage has is actually just a sample, Snead said.

“It can be very frustrating to gather that data,” Snead said. “There is no central repository at really any level. We had to grapple with that. We’re looking at local news outlets and following those cases once we become aware of them. We only include cases with dispositions. We include people who go into diversion programs or if there is a civil outcome. We limit what is included in the database to the cases we know about that have resolutions.”

Voting fraud is out there

Snead insists that enough data exists to conclude that voting fraud is a national issue with huge ramifications. People steal ballots, elections have to be redone, new elections are called, one seat in Virginia was decided by drawing lots in a state where control of the legislature was up for grabs, Snead said.

Polls show that a majority of people want laws that will keep others from voting illegally, he said.

A majority of people say they want voter ID laws, Snead said. People recognize that identification cards are readily available and that the state should help people overcome obstacles to getting identification documents, he said.

States also need to work together to clean up rolls littered with people who are signed up to vote in more than one state because of a move, Snead said.

“If someone casts an illegal ballot, it cancels out a legal one,” he said. “Overturn enough elections and that undermines faith in the process.”

Mason’s case is an outlier, Snead said. Most people convicted of illegal voting get minimal sentences, involving days or perhaps months in jail, not years, he said.

The talk of racism that surrounds the voting integrity/voter suppression debate only makes the problem more difficult to address, Snead said.

Crystal Mason
Crystal Mason, a Texas woman sentenced for illegally voting, says she was targeted and is appealing her state conviction. Mason stands near her family and friends during church service May 26, 2019, in Dallas. Yffy Yossifor yyossifor@star-telegram.com

“I do not think calling voter ID a poll tax is helpful,” Snead said. “I understand these are sensitive topics, but we need to be careful that we do not cast aspersions where none are warranted. Anything people say about election integrity will be used to attack them. Even modest proposals are lambasted by liberal organizations. I really hope that more reasonable heads can prevail in these debates. It’s possible that people can step back and check all of this rhetoric at the door, so I hope there is some hope for the future.”

But Snead said he doubts any of those conversations will take place prior to the 2020 elections.

Tarrant County Republican Party Chair Darl Easton said Democrats have always done what they are charging the Republican Party of doing, but the difference is now the Republicans are the party in power. Democrats just like to complain, Easton said.

Republicans want photo identification and Democrats call it voter suppression, Easton said. Go to the bank or go give blood and they ask for photo identification, he said.

“I do not believe the Republican Party is doing voter suppression,” Easton said. “The Democrats create lawsuits and then find a judge that will agree with them. I just give zero credibility to what the Democrats say about this.”

As far as Mason is concerned, she should face the music just like anyone else convicted of a crime, he said.

“It’s a criminal offense to commit voter fraud and those people should go through the criminal process,” Easton said. “If they don’t like the law, they should try to change the law.”

No law will eliminate voter fraud

Some who say the effort to eliminate voter fraud is a megaton solution to an inconsequential problem also say the real issue the country needs to work through is giving marginalized eligible voters access to the polls.

Mason’s prosecution, along with the prosecution of Rosa Maria Ortega, a green card holder sentenced to eight years in prison for illegally voting, are efforts to derail that work, Mason’s supporters say.

Republicans want to make sentences so harsh that voting will seem like a dangerous endeavor, said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star project, a Democratic research and communications PAC. Then Republicans want to publicize those prosecutions as broadly as they can in order to undermine turnout, he said.

Republicans openly hostile to minority voters lose their support so their answer to maintaining their positions is to keep minorities from voting, Angle said.

“(Tarrant County District Attorney) Sharen Wilson is a full partner in the effort to suppress the vote,” Angle said. “The Republicans see Tarrant County as the last ledge they hold onto. And there is no question that the actions taken by Texas were intended to chill actions around voting. They want to over-prosecute people who make mistakes in the voting process. They put a person of color in prison and then they screamed it from the rooftops so that everyone would hear.”

Felon disenfranchisement laws and voter ID laws are unnecessary and do not address a problem, said Phil Keisling, former Oregon secretary of state. Completely eliminating fraud in any system is unlikely, Keisling said. Like Snead, Keisling says the public needs to have a reasonable discussion without the polarizing partisan debate that has been a feature of talking about these issues.

“At some point, without that reasonable conversation you will need to present a DNA sample and take a blood test to access a ballot,” Keisling said. “I think there are people who believe that more people voting will be bad for them. And it’s not just on one side of the political spectrum. I say to all of them shame on you. Too many people in politics think they are not servants of the people.”

And prosecutors should not use a sentence akin to a nuclear weapon to punish someone for committing an act that deserves a fine, Keisling said.

“At times you need to prosecute cases to send a clear signal because this [illegal voting] is against the law,” Keisling said. “But a person who is seeing voter fraud where none exists has to be accountable to voters as well.”

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Mitch Mitchell is an award-winning reporter covering courts and crime for the Star-Telegram. Additionally, Mitch’s past coverage on municipal government, healthcare and social services beats allow him to bring experience and context to the stories he writes.
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