Following the release of early voting tallies that showed Republican county judge candidate Tim O’Hare leading Deborah Peoples, the mood at the Tarrant County Democratic Party vote-watching get-together quickly turned to commiseration and frustration.
Held at Eastside restaurant Turkey Pen, the gathering of candidates and supporters followed the local midterm results in dismay. Several Black judges running for criminal, family, and probate courts all lost. The only clear Democrat victor was Precinct 2 Commissioner-elect Alisa Simmons, who defeated Republican Andy Nguyen.
Democrat Tiffany Burks, who lost to Phil Sorrells in the race for district attorney, was disappointed but mainly concerned about the future of the county prosecutor’s office, where she worked for more than two decades as a lead prosecutor.
“I’m going to take a long vacation to recover from this race,” she said.
Had she been elected, she said her administration would have overseen the return of experienced prosecutors and an end to the good ol’ boy system that will once again define work at the Tim Curry Justice Center.
Burks said she is done with politics.
“Maybe I’ll open a restaurant now,” she quipped.
Missing from the event was Peoples. Friends of the former Tarrant County Democratic Party chair confided that early signs of losing to the former Tarrant County Republican chair known for openly portraying Blacks and Mexicans as a danger to society was too much.
In a race in which less than half of registered voters turned out, O’Hare won 53% of 582,599 votes, largely from the deep red suburbs in northeast Tarrant County. Murmurs that Peoples committed voter fraud, largely peddled through private channels and an irreputable Dallas publication owned by a staunch O’Hare supporter, galvanized conservative voters in the weeks leading to November’s midterms.
The 2020 video shows a rambling felon, Charles Jackson, describing his work several years earlier for Democrats like Peoples who allegedly paid him $200 per falsified mail-in ballot. In the bodycam footage, Jackson confusingly tells Fort Worth police officer Jentry Cotten that Peoples paid him to falsify ballots for months before elections even as mail-in ballots are distributed only a few weeks before any race in Texas.
In September, directors at True Texas Project, a conservative advocacy group based in northeast Tarrant County, blasted DA Sharen Wilson for not investigating the alleged voter fraud scandal.
“We have clear video footage of a homeless guy making big bucks to harvest votes illegally,” True Texas Project’s website reads. “And who was paying him? Deborah Peoples. Folks, homeless men don’t just rattle off the names of wannabe politicians. He clearly knows her and her goons well. So why is DA Sharen Wilson doing nothing?”
The reason, based on internal emails leaked to me by a confidential source, is that the DA’s office found the allegations baseless.
The results of the DA’s investigation “convinced us that we should not attempt to go forward with the cases,” reads a February email from Tarrant County Criminal Division Chief Larry Moore to Assistant State Attorney General Joseph O’Neill.
In the same email, titled “Tarrant County Election Fraud Cases,” Moore makes clear that the State Attorney General’s office has no authority to investigate local voter fraud cases. In September, the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld its previous ruling that the attorney general must receive permission from county prosecutors to pursue voter fraud cases. In a follow-up email, O’Neill asks Moore if he would consider deputizing the AG’s office to look into the bodycam case.
“I appreciate your office taking the steps to look through this case,” O’Neill wrote. “I know it is a daunting task. Are you also deciding to not deputize our office, thereby allowing our attorneys to prosecute this case? I just want to make sure that your office understands we are willing and ready to try this case if deputized.”
Moore refused to comply with the request.
“We would also not intend to deputize any of your attorneys in order to prosecute the case,” Moore responded.
The DA’s office did not respond to my requests for comment on the emails and attempts by the AG’s office — led by indicted election denier Ken Paxton — to strongarm Tarrant County into prosecuting likely dubious voter fraud allegations. O’Hare’s campaign ignored my questions about the authenticity of the video.
Paxton has made voter fraud a top priority for his department even as evidence of elections meddling remains infinitesimally scant. Five years ago, his office opened an elections integrity unit that has increasingly relied on rarely prosecuted laws like interfering with the movement of poll watchers to churn up prosecutions.
Based on reporting by the Texas Tribune, Paxton’s task force looked into 390 cases of potential election crimes between January 2020 and late 2021 that resulted in a grand total of five convictions.
Paxton’s history of supporting fabricated voter fraud allegations nearly led to his disbarment after he falsely alleged voter fraud was behind President Joe Biden’s landslide electoral win two years ago.
The video came to light recently after right-wing conspiracy theorists requested its release. Two members of Citizens for Election Integrity filed 11 separate open requests with the police in mid-2021 that detailed specific information about the time and place the police cam footage was taken, suggesting that someone on the police force leaked details about the video to Citizens.
One confidential source who maintains connections with Fort Worth police alleges the cops tipped off members of the elections integrity group. A police spokesperson rejected that accusation.
Another source who asked to remain anonymous to protect his privacy provided a photo of Cotten, the officer who filmed the video, and Sheriff Bill Waybourn, who maintains close connections with anti-government militia groups (“ Far-Right Local Sheriff Threatens Democracy,” July 20). The Tarrant County sheriff endorsed O’Hare and publicly stated his department would not investigate the video due to that endorsement. Waybourn never disclosed his friendship with Cotten, though, and a sheriff’s department spokesperson declined to respond to my requests for comment.
The source who provided the photo alleges the push to paint Peoples as an elections rigger was a concerted effort by local Republican operatives and the AG’s office to fabricate criminal charges against a Democrat opponent using systems of government that are increasingly under local Republican control.
The source, who is a legal professional, said he is collecting evidence that could potentially lead to criminal charges — namely abuse of office — against any government employee who misused their power to harm Peoples or members of her staff. The source fears abuse of the local criminal justice system for political means will only increase under an O’Hare administration.
A top priority for the county judge-elect is the formation of an Election Integrity Officer, something O’Hare said he will do on his first day in office.
“This position would be selected by a committee including the sheriff, the county judge, and a designated county commissioner,” O’Hare’s campaign website reads. “The Election Integrity Officer will seek to find and uncover election fraud. Any election fraud discovered by the Election Integrity Officer would be reported to the sheriff and the district attorney and prosecuted as the DA sees fit. I believe installing the position is critical in ensuring a true and fair vote for everyone in future elections.”
The results of the midterms mean O’Hare, Waybourn, and Fort Worth police union head Manny Ramirez could be the sole determiners of which voter fraud allegations are sent to Republican DA Sorrells.
Last year, Tarrant County’s attorneys weighed in on Sorrells’ performance during his last year in office. Based on their votes, lawyers with the Tarrant County Bar Association said former county judge Sorrells was the least likely of his black-robed peers to follow the law.