The arrest of Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina also comes at a time of heightened tension over voting in Texas, where Republicans in the coming weeks want to toughen penalties for election crimes over opposition from Democrats. Meanwhile, a bungled search in January for non-citizens on Texas' voter rolls set off lawsuits and questions from Congress .
Edinburg is a city of about 90,000 people and is headquarters for U.S. Customs and Border Protection operations in the Rio Grande Valley. Molina unseated the city's longtime mayor by about 1,200 votes in 2017, and prosecutors say Molina tried to tip the scales by having voters change their addresses to places they didn't live, including an apartment complex he owned.
Molina was charged with engaging in organized election fraud, a first-degree felony, and two counts of illegal voting. He surrendered to authorities Thursday along with his wife, Dalia Molina, who was charged with one count of illegal voting.
City spokeswoman Cary Zayas told reporters outside the courthouse in Edinburg that the mayor "very adamantly" denies wrongdoing.
"Voter fraud is an affront to democracy and places the decision-making authority of the Texas electorate in the hands of those who have no right to make those choices," Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement. "Voter apathy is caused by rigged elections with guaranteed outcomes."
Paxton's office, which investigated the case, declined to say whether the number of allegedly fraudulent votes affected the election's outcome. Municipal elections in Texas are nonpartisan, and Zayas said she does not know whether Molina has a party affiliation.
Eighteen people have been arrested in connection with the alleged scheme. South Texas has long carried a reputation as a hotbed of bad-behaving officials at all levels of government, and in 2013, the Justice Department reported there were more public corruption convictions in the state's southern district than anywhere in the U.S.
The charges against Molina mark a high-profile arrest for Paxton, who has made prosecuting illegal voting cases a priority and has touted tough prison sentences handed down in election fraud cases. His office prosecuted nearly three dozen people in 2018 for election fraud violations and asked lawmakers this year for more funding and staff.
A federal judge in February said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Texas after the state wrongly questioned the U.S. citizenship of thousands of voters.
Republicans are also trying to get a bill on Gov. Greg Abbott's desk before the end of May that would, among other things, make it a felony to put false information on a voter registration form. Democrats say the bill could punish people for making honest mistakes.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas.
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