Salinas’ win further complicates Sunland Park mess
Gerardo Hernandez plans to challenge Tuesday’s results. The DA plans to oppose changes to Daniel Salinas’ conditions of release that would allow him to do his job. Multiple investigations continue.
The election of a mayor in Sunland Park who faces extortion charges complicates an already messy situation in which seven city officials have been charged and at least four fraudulent votes by Texans have been disqualified.
Meanwhile, multiple investigations into alleged electoral fraud, other election-related crimes, and financial problems are ongoing.
Daniel Salinas, who faces felony extortion charges alleging he used a lap-dance video to try to force Gerardo Hernandez from the race, beat Hernandez by 84 votes on Tuesday. Hernandez says he will challenge the election results based at least in part on a claim that the election was tainted by voter fraud.
“We knew this was going to be a tough race, combating voter fraud and extortion. It’s hard to believe that someone who has attempted to sway the vote by intimidation and supported by illegal voter fraud is elected,” Hernandez said. “Where the secretary of state and the district attorney were involved I was ahead 3 to 1.”
Even if Salinas survives that challenge, whether he’ll be able to do the job is up in the air.
Conditions of Salinas’ release from jail require him to stay away from city hall and all city employees. If he can’t step foot in the city’s administrative building, how can he do the job? Will a district or magistrate judge from Las Cruces have to administer the oath of office on Friday?
And with the city manager still jailed in the extortion case, who will be in charge as long as Salinas can’t go near city hall?
Salinas told two TV reporters he’s not concerned.
“My attorney will have to change some of the bond restrictions that I have right now. We’re thinking that in a couple of weeks we will be able to change them and I’ll be able to attend city hall,” KFOX-TV in El Paso quoted Salinas as saying. He also told KFOX and KVIA-TV that he’s willing to work from home if necessary.
But as KVIA pointed out, District Attorney Amy Orlando will fight changes to Salinas’ conditions of release. Ultimately, it will be up to a judge to decide.
How widespread was alleged electoral fraud?
Orlando has alleged that people “associated with the electoral process in Sunland Park,” Salinas’ campaign, and Sunland Park city government “attempted to illegally influence the vote and the campaign results for the Mar. 6 election.” How widespread the problems were isn’t clear. A judge approved the disqualification of at least four absentee ballots on Tuesday because they were cast by residents of El Paso, Texas.
Orlando said 15-20 early in-person votes were also cast by El Pasoans, but those votes can’t be separated out and disqualified.
Were there more? Investigators have their eyes on the fact that Hernandez easily won the vote on Election Day – with state police and county and state elections officials watching – but Salinas won early and absentee voting by large enough margins to overcome his Election Day disadvantage.
In addition to looking at absentee ballot outer envelopes to try to find more votes cast by people who don’t live in Sunland Park, investigators are also considering this fact: According to the secretary of state’s report, When the first batch of 500 absentee ballots for the municipal election arrived at city hall, Salinas or City Manager Jaime Aguilera, who is also charged in the lap-dance video case, took them.
The first day of absentee voting, before the other mayoral candidates had access to the ballots, about 300 were cast. By comparison, about 15 were cast in the larger city of Farmington on that day.
As unofficial election results show, Salinas had 261 absentee votes to Hernandez’s 51.
The police investigation is actively continuing. An hour before the polls closed on Tuesday, state police arrested another city employee and charged her with false voting. They’ve also been negotiating the surrender of a former city councilor who faces the same charges.
Seven city officials, including Salinas, have been charged thus far with crimes related to attempting to helping Salinas get elected. Salinas has not been charged with electoral fraud.
Orlando has offered amnesty to people who voted illegally after being pressured as long as they didn’t know it was wrong and cooperate with investigators. She said Tuesday a number of individuals have come forward.
Will ‘administrative instability’ lead to state takeover?
The secretary of state and state auditor also continue looking into the situation in the city of 14,000 people. State Auditor Hector Balderas’ investigation is important because the state has the power to temporarily suspend city officials and take over operations, if he recommends it.
Balderas has raised that possibility. After Salinas’ victory Tuesday, the auditor said he’s still troubled.
“I remain concerned by the financial condition of Sunland Park. The administrative instability continues to place taxpayer dollars at significant risk, and my auditors are working aggressively to produce a timely recommendation to the governor,” he said.
Can Salinas beat criminal charges?
Even if he survives the election challenge and the state doesn’t step in to take over the city, Salinas has to deal with the pending extortion case. He’s charged with four felonies. A conviction on any of them would result in his immediate removal from office.
Salinas plans to fight.
“This could very easily take months, could take years for this to come to an end,” KVIA quoted him as saying.
In the meantime, Salinas, who called the case against him “persecution,” said he’s happy and excited by his victory.
“I just thank God and my people from the campaign that helped me get here,” he told KVIA.