DA stays on Edinburg mayor’s voter fraud case, visiting judge rules

Hidalgo County District attorney Ricardo Rodriguez testifies in the 92nd state District Court during a hearing to remove him from upcoming voter fraud case against Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina at the Hidalgo County Courthouse on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

A visiting judge on Tuesday morning denied Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina’s request to oust the Hidalgo County District Attorney from prosecuting the voter fraud case against the elected official.

The order followed a day-long, in-person hearing that featured testimony from District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr. and his aunt, Mary Alice Palacios, among others.

Molina’s attorney, Carlos A. Garcia, had filed a motion to disqualify the district attorney, arguing that he had a conflict of interest in the case because Palacios was the person who filed a voter fraud complaint against Molina with the Secretary of State’s office following the 2017 municipal election. Molina unseated the city’s longtime mayor Richard Garcia in that election.

Both Rodriguez and Palacios testified that they had not spoken to each other about the complaint and the district attorney testified that he in no way assisted his aunt with the complaint.

Palacios also testified that no one helped her with the complaint.

The defense attorney had argued that Palacios had an ax to grind against Molina because after he was elected she lost an insurance contract with the city.

In his ruling, state District Judge Carlos Valdez said that after considering witness testimony, evidence admitted, legal authorities submitted and arguments from the attorneys, it was his opinion that the motion should be denied.

Molina was charged with 11 counts of illegal voting and one count of engaging in organized fraud.

There are approximately a dozen other people facing various charges from the investigation initiated by Palacios’ complaint, including the mayor’s wife, Dalia.

All of the suspects have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The next matter Valdez will likely take up is a motion to set a jury trial date filed by prosecutors in the case.

That motion was placed on hold after Molina’s attorney filed the motion to disqualify the night before the judge was set to take up the motion to set a jury trial date.

The pandemic effectively halted the case against Molina and there had been no status, pre-trial or jury trial dates.

In October, the Hidalgo County Board of Judges decided that trial courts could start empaneling jurors for trials, which prosecutor Michael Garza said prompted the motion for a trial date.

Garcia, however, has called the timing of the filing of that motion — which occurred a week before early voting — suspect, suggesting prosecutors are trying to undermine the Edinburg election, which they deny.

Molina is currently in a run-off with former Edinburg City Manager Ramiro Garza.