A visiting judge on Thursday declined to set a jury trial date for Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina’s voter fraud trial, but this time the reason is not pandemic-related.
Instead, District Judge Carlos Valdez said an evidentiary hearing is required to address allegations, some of which the judge described as serious, in a motion Molina’s attorney, Carlos A. Garcia, filed Wednesday night. That motion seeks to disqualify Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr. and his staff from prosecuting or investigating the case against Molina.
The motion alleges that Rodriguez has “obvious and acknowledged conflicts of interest” that violate the mayor’s due process right to a disinterested prosecutor. The motion also includes comments Molina made after his arrest, in which he alleged the charges against him were political retaliation for unseating Edinburg’s longtime mayor, Richard Garcia, in the November 2017 municipal election.
Molina, who is currently campaigning for reelection, is charged by indictment with engaging in organized voter fraud along with 11 counts of illegal voting.
He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and has maintained his innocence since his arrest.
The mayor appeared in court with his wife, Dalia, for the hearing in front of the visiting judge inside the 92nd state District Court on Thursday.
This is their first court hearing since March 2020, which occurred just before Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Supreme Court put the brakes on in-person court hearings during an attempt to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
The Molinas and Julio Carranza, a former Edinburg EDC board member and Molina’s business associate, were initially scheduled for a hearing on a motion to set a jury trial date. The DA’s office filed this motion last week, a week before early voting began.
Carranza and Dalia are both indicted on charges of engaging in organized voter fraud and two counts of illegal voting. They have both pleaded not guilty.
There are also more than a dozen other suspects who are facing charges of illegal voting related to the case.
The DA’s office has also filed motions in their cases seeking a jury trial setting, though all of those motions were set aside as Valdez addressed the motion to disqualify the DA and his staff from any involvement in the case going forward.
“There are some allegations that are made in the motion that I believe will require an evidentiary hearing,” Valdez said.
Michael Garza, the DA’s office lead prosecutor on the case, told Valdez he believes the motion was not properly filed and called the allegations frivolous. Garza even suggested that if the state prevails in the evidentiary hearing the State Bar should be notified about the motion Molina’s attorney filed.
The judge, however, questioned Garza about who is actually in charge of the case.
Initially, Rodriguez told The Monitor after Molina’s arrest that his office had been investigating the mayor and that the Texas Rangers and Attorney General’s Office later became involved, according to the motion.
However, it was later revealed that Rodriguez’s aunt, Mary Alice Palacios, filed a complaint against Molina with the Texas Attorney General’s Office alleging he committed voter fraud.
During the hearing, Garza said the DA is in charge of the prosecution and the Texas Attorney General’s Office, which was notably absent Thursday, sits in as co-counsel.
Garza maintained that the AG’s office, not the DA’s office, initiated the investigation. The prosecutor said it was the attorney general who contacted the DA’s office to ask whether it wanted to assist.
When Valdez pushed Garza about who was in charge, the prosecutor said the DA’s office is assisting the attorney general but that he is lead counsel.
“I’m just the mouthpiece,” Garza said, calling this all a matter of semantics.
The motion to disqualify has a lot to say about Mary Alice Palacios, including that she invited him to lunch prior to Molina winning the mayoral election while serving on the city council.
“At the lunch, Mary Alice Palacios revealed that she wanted Molina’s vote to terminate the City’s relationship with its then-current Health Insurance Agent of Record, Ronnie Guerra, and hire Gilberto Gonzalez of FBMC Benefits Management to take over the lucrative contract for managing the City’s employee health insurance plans,” the motion stated.
Her nephew is Buddy Palacios, who is Rodriguez’s first cousin, according to the motion, which alleged she and her nephew would be subcontractors under the firm.
However, Molina believed Guerra’s services were fine and he voted against the change while the council’s majority and then-mayor Garcia voted in favor of the change.
“Mary Alice Palacios worked as a subcontractor gaining substantial compensation under the contract,” the motion stated.
When Molina was elected, the new council voted to terminate that contract.
The motion also names several more members of the Palacios family, of which Rodriguez is an extended member, and alleges they held numerous positions and lucrative relationships within the city of Edinburg.
“The fortunes of Mary Alice Palacios, and the extended Palacios family, changed substantially when Molina challenged Richard Garcia for mayor, and won, along with a new council majority,” the motion stated.
As for the motion to set a jury trial date, Molina’s attorney slammed it, telling the judge the timing of its filing — a week before early voting — is telling.
“The true interest from the district attorney’s office is to undermine the voters of Edinburg,” Carlos Garcia said.
Valdez had considered setting a Nov. 15 trial date, but Garcia opposed it due to Molina’s current bid for reelection and possible runoff.
He asked for a spring setting next year for a trial.
When asked what he thought about that, Garza said all he did was file a motion to set a jury trial date and said this is what Molina’s been asking for. The prosecutor also challenged Garcia’s election claims, saying Molina is the one who decided to run for mayor under indictment and he is the one who asked for his day in court.
Also, the filing of a motion to set a jury trial followed a Board of Judges meeting in which that body authorized jury empanelments and trials to begin on Nov. 1, Garza said.
The Molinas quietly laughed when the judge asked Garza whether a trial date could be set for next spring.
Ultimately, Garza said he wouldn’t be opposed.
Valdez scheduled the evidentiary hearing for Nov. 15.