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AG’s office extending Española voter fraud probe

The New Mexico Attorney General wants to spend more time looking into allegations of voter fraud in an Española City Council race that have already produced criminal charges against one defendant.

Felony voter fraud counts filed in June in Magistrate Court against Dyon Herrera, 21, have been dismissed, but “without prejudice,” meaning the charges can be refiled. And the July 20 dismissal notice filed by the AG’s Office says “Criminal charges will be refiled at a later time.”

The case involves the March council District 4 race in which challenger Richard Seeds narrowly defeated incumbent Cory Lewis by a count of 238 to 236. Herrera accompanied Seeds’ wife on a couple of trips to cast absentee ballots. The three ballots at issue in Herrera’s criminal case were not counted in the final election tally.

Dismissal of charges in Magistrate Court is standard in many felony cases as a predecessor action for taking the case to the higher District Court level or to a grand jury to seek indictments.

Asked about the case this week, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office provided a statement saying the office had been asked by the Santa Fe District Attorney’s Office to review the allegations of voter fraud after an investigation was completed by the State Police.

The statement adds, “Upon review by our office, it was determined that further investigation is needed prior to proceeding with any criminal charges,” the statement added. “This investigation follow-up is currently being undertaken by the Special Investigations Division of the OAG (Office of Attorney General) in coordination with State Police and is in progress.”

The statement said the AG’s Office would say no more on the investigation for now. The Journal had submitted questions, including whether there were any other targets beyond Herrera.

In an interesting twist, Española attorney Yvonne Quintana filed notice in Magistrate Court that she’s representing Herrera on July 22 – two days after Herrera’s charges in that court were dropped. Her filings also included a demand for a speedy trial, a motion to obtain prosecution evidence and a request to interview prosecution witnesses.

The Journal was unable to reach Quintana for comment on why she made the filings in Magistrate Court after the charges were dropped there.

Quintana also represents Seeds in a civil lawsuit filed by Lewis that seeks to have a judge throw out all early and absentee ballots cast among the total 477 votes counted in the election. The suit says Lewis got 100 of the early/absentee votes and Seeds got 189.

Herrera was arrested by State Police in early July. A criminal complaint charges him with two counts of false voting, for purportedly fake signatures on absentee ballots for his grandparents Lenora and Lee Roy Herrera, and one count for a fake signature for another person, Ben Lopez, on an application for an absentee ballot.

The investigation started when the Española City Clerk wrote a letter to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office a couple of weeks before the March election. Squires provided the Journal with a copy of the letter this week, but did not respond to subsequent phone messages for comment.

Clerk describes ‘suspicious’ behavior

Squires’ letter says that, on Feb. 17, Laura Seeds – candidate Richard Seeds’ wife – and Herrera were delivering absentee ballot applications when Mrs. Seeds got a call from Herrera’s grandmother, Lenora Herrera, saying her husband Lee Roy Herrera had accidentally torn in two the absentee ballots that the couple received in the mail. A city clerk worker got on the phone and confirmed the account, and it was agreed that grandson Dyon Herrera could come back with the damaged ballots.

Dyon Herrera returned with the torn ballots the next day. New ballots were issued, and Herrera left, but absentee ballot presiding judge Therisa Aguilar went to get something in an adjacent room and through a window saw Herrera in his car in the parking lot, according Squires’ letter.

Aguilar saw Herrera opening the ballots. He came back inside within five minutes with the two ballots, now purportedly signed by his grandparents. Augilar and the other clerk’s office employee found this “suspicious,” says Squires’ account. After Herrera left again, Aguilar again watched through the window and saw only “young passengers” and no elders in the car with Herrera, wrote Squires.

On another occasion, Laura Seeds and Dyon Herrera came in with a woman, Daysi Lopez, who asked that Mrs. Seeds help her vote early. Lopez voted, then submitted applications for four absentee ballots for her siblings, but one – for Ben Lopez – had not been signed. Mrs. Seeds said Ben Lopez was outside in the car and told Herrera to go get the application signed.

Herrera came back in with a signed application but, again, Aguilar looked through a window and saw Mrs. Seeds, Herrera and Lopez as the only passengers in the vehicle as Mrs. Seeds drove away, Squires wrote in her request for an investigation.

Meanwhile, for Lewis’ civil lawsuit that challenges absentee votes in the election, Lenora Herrera has signed an affidavit saying that she and husband, who has since died, did in fact sign their ballots. She said she instructed grandson Dyon Herrera to deliver the “signed, sealed” envelopes to the clerk. Also, Ben Lopez provided an affidavit saying he voted absentee and that he had signed his own ballot envelope.

Lewis’s court complaint maintains that there are enough “fraudulent, illegal or improper” absentee or early ballots that, if thrown out, “would mean the election was won by Lewis.” He has submitted names of more than 20 people he believes didn’t sign the mailing envelopes used for returning their absentee ballots.

Seeds: Poll worker has ‘unclean hands’

Seeds, in his initial response to the suit, maintained that polling official Aguilar “acted in collusion in order to promote” Lewis in the election and “in bad faith and with unclean hands.”

Earlier this month, lawyer Quintana submitted for Seeds affidavits from 21 people who Lewis has said didn’t sign their own ballot envelopes, all of them saying they had voted themselves and in fact signed the mailing envelopes. One of those voters and Lenora Herrera also said in their affidavits that they were being harassed by the police.

Quintana made a counter claim asking that the three votes by Ben Lopez, and Lenora and Lee Roy Herrera be added to Seeds’ count, arguing that Aguilar had no authority to disqualify their ballots.

The bad blood between Seeds and Herrera started early when Laura Seeds sought a District Court judge’s order to throw Lewis off the ballot before the election for allegedly not living in City Council District 4. Judge Sarah Singleton, who is now hearing Lewis’ election challenge, rejected the request.