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Defense continues to present its case in former Edinburg mayor's voter fraud trial

EDINBURG — Former Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina is telling his side of the story.

Molina took the witness stand Monday afternoon to defend himself from allegations that he committed voter fraud during the 2017 mayoral election in which he defeated longtime Mayor Richard Garcia.

Facing a count of engaging in organized voter fraud and 11 counts of illegal voting, Molina reiterated his plea of not guilty to the charges when the trial began last week and now, under questioning by his own attorneys, is defending himself with his own words.

The former mayor talked about his childhood, family, career and his eventual interest in running for office during his testimony before visiting Judge Carlos Valdez recessed for the day.

Molina is expected to resume his testimony when the trial continues Tuesday.

He was the fifth witness to take the stand for the defense, which began presenting its witnesses Monday morning.

A large focus of the testimony was on the definition of “residence,” particularly how it’s defined by the state.

Attorney Jaime Peña questioned Belinda Sagredo, a Hidalgo County Elections Department employee who trained Molina and others to be volunteer voter registrars, on the various factors that can determine a person’s residence.

Sagredo agreed with Peña that residency can be a choice because some people might own multiple properties and that the addresses on a driver’s license are not required to match an address on a voter registration form.

This questioning appeared to be in direct response to the testimony of Haille Gracia, a deputy registrar who said she worked for the Molina campaign for about two to three weeks. Gracia said she helped a couple register to vote and that, while doing so, Molina told her not to match the address on their registration application to the address on their driver’s license.

During cross-examination, prosecutor Michael Garza asked that if people said they changed their address because they were pressured to do so or that they never had any intention of living at a residence they were registered under, would the definition of residence even matter? Sagredo said it would not.

The definition of residence also came up during the testimony of John Waits, a sergeant investigator with the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Peña grilled Waits on whether he took the “common law” definition of residence — which takes into consideration various factors to determine residence, such as where they work, pay taxes, and own real or personal property — for the people he investigated in this case.

Waits said he did consider it but determined that the circumstances of many of the individuals he investigated — some of whom admitted to changing their address just to vote in the election and admitted they had no intention of ever living there — did not match the common law definition of residence.

Also called to the stand was Richard Ramirez, a border patrol agent who previously testified for the state that he had changed the address on his voter registration so that he could vote in the 2017 election at Molina’s request.

During his testimony last week, Ramirez said he was not facing charges in the case, but on Monday, under questioning from Carlos A. Garcia, another attorney for Molina, he said he was under indictment.

Garcia insinuated that Ramirez agreed to testify against Molina in hopes that prosecutors would dismiss the charges in the indictment. Ramirez agreed.

Garza then asked Ramirez if his testimony would be any different whether or not he knew he was under indictment, and Ramirez said it would not.

“Not at all,” Ramirez said, adding that he told the truth during his testimony last week.

Under further questioning from Garcia, Ramirez said he sometimes stayed at his parents’ home which was the address through which he voted for Molina, when he had marital troubles.

“And so when Richard (Molina) told you you could use that address, you agreed to do it because you thought it was legal, correct?” Garcia asked.

“I didn’t think it was wrong,” Ramirez said.

Written by
Berenice Garcia - The Monitor