State Politics

Texas voter fraud victim: ‘I can’t believe people have the nerve to do that’

76-year-old Texas voter fraud victim speaks out

Minnie Barela, a blind 76-year-old Fort Worth woman, says a woman recently indicted in connection with an organized voter fraud ring had knocked on her door in 2016 and offered to help her vote.
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Minnie Barela, a blind 76-year-old Fort Worth woman, says a woman recently indicted in connection with an organized voter fraud ring had knocked on her door in 2016 and offered to help her vote.

Two Attorney General investigators arrived at Ofelia Peña’s north Fort Worth home earlier this year, wearing suits and flashing badges.

The cautious 72-year-old woman let them in, but she checked their identification twice and kept her handgun within easy reach.

“They were investigating people that had been using our identity,” Peña said the investigators told her. “I thought why would someone want my identity? We’re not rich. We’ve lived here 42 years.”

What the investigators didn’t say, and what she only learned this week in a phone call from the Star-Telegram, is that the suspects were allegedly after Peña’s vote.

State officials say Peña was one of more than two dozen people victimized in an organized voter fraud ring where several women were paid to target elderly voters in north side Fort Worth neighborhoods.

Four people were arrested — Leticia Sanchez, Leticia Sanchez Tepichin, Maria Solis and Laura Parra — after being indicted on 29 felony counts of voter fraud, according to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

These women allegedly were paid to target older voters on the north side “in a scheme to generate a large number of mail ballots and then harvest those ballots for specific candidates in 2016,” the statement read.

When asked who paid the women, Texas Attorney General spokesman Jeff Hillery said “details will come out when this case goes to trial.”

He did say that the charges in these cases “are in connection with the 2016 Democratic primary, but the case has connections with the 2015 city council election.”

Early voting for the Nov. 6 mid-term election begins Monday and runs through Nov. 2.

Ballot harvesting

These indictments come years after allegations of voter fraud were investigated. In 2016, before the presidential election, workers from Paxton’s office were in Tarrant County gathering paperwork and interviewing potential witnesses.

Around that time, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted: “Largest Voter Fraud Investigation in Texas History Underway in Tarrant County. We will crush illegal voting.”

The complaints that year focused on mail-in ballots, which let people vote from their homes without first showing any identification.

Supporters say mail-in balloting is crucial for overseas residents, the military and senior citizens. Critics maintain that such voting is ripe for abuse and raises concerns about “vote harvesting,” where people fill out and return other people’s ballots.

In many cases, AG officials say, “voters do not even know their votes have been stolen.”

Voter fraud

As for Peña, she said when investigators showed her a picture of herself and then her husband, she recognized them as their passport pictures by the mustard brown blouse she wore and the way she wore her hair.

“I recognized the blouse because I used to make my own clothes,” she explained. “That was taken in 2014 because we were going to go to Italy for our 50th anniversary, but my doctor wouldn’t allow it.”

The investigators also asked her to look at two signatures, which she confirmed were her own and that of her husband.

Peña said, to her knowledge, she’d never met or been approached by the women and doesn’t know how they got their pictures and signatures.

“They showed me several names to see if I knew these women,” Peña said. “I said ‘Nope. Nope. I don’t know any of them.”

She said until recent health problems, she’d been a regular voter but likes to vote in person. Peña said she voted Republican last year, but doesn’t necessarily affiliate with one party over the other.

“I think they’re all worthless,” she said.

Though the Attorney General’s office never updated her, Peña said she’s glad they’ve arrested the suspects and would be happy to testify in any future trial.

“I can’t believe people have the nerve to do that,” she said. “I tell my husband I’m afraid to jaywalk. I know they’re going to catch me.”

She said she always taught her son: “There’s a couple of things you don’t mess with — Uncle Sam, voting, and just plain telling a lie when you know it’s a lie.”

Deanna Boyd: 817-390-7655, @deannaboyd
Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley
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