MONTGOMERY COUNTY — The head of the state’s elections is requesting that the Texas Attorney General open a criminal investigation into voting in three municipal utility districts in this county connected to their use of temporary voters.
State Director of Elections Keith Ingram’s letter to the director of law enforcement at the Attorney General’s office requests that the AG probe “allegations of criminal activity in connection with the creation…” of three districts, in response to complaints from several individuals in Montgomery County.
“The complaints allege that voters were paid to reside in and vote for the creation of three municipal utility districts, as well as to pass bonds in the districts,” Ingram’s July 27 letter says.
The request for a criminal probe comes in the wake of years of reports by Texas Monitor reporters.
To be an elected board member in a municipal utility district, a candidate must be a property owner or resident within the boundaries of the district. Most of the time districts begin as raw land and small parcels of land are apportioned by the developer to predetermined board members in order to make them eligible for election.
But the voters are frequently “borrowed” and housed in temporary dwellings arranged by the developer to make them eligible voters.
The voters then cast their ballots as dictated by the developer — sometimes voting on millions of dollars worth of bonds, making giant profits for the developer, attorneys, and other power brokers.
In the Montgomery County case, all three of the districts used a service to recruit temporary voters that are enlisted to vote on an initial bond issuance and a board of directors for the district. They are provided with a trailer on the property of the district in order to fulfill voting residency requirements.
The complaints allege that Stingray Services “paid for voters to reside in and vote for both the creation of the districts as well as bonds in each district.”
In November 2015, two voters in the Montgomery County Municipal Utility District No. 148 approved $500 million in bonds. They lived temporarily in a trailer placed on a piece of the 82 acres of district land.
Elections for the two other utility districts named — Montgomery County Municipal Utility District No. 130 and 131 — were conducted by the district and the results tallied by overseers of the districts.
Two of the three districts, 130 and 131, are operated by the Houston law firm of Schwartz, Page & Harding, which did not return a phone call.
Friendswood, which is the developer of the land in district 148, did not respond to a phone message.
In its promotional material, now removed following a spate of media coverage in 2015 and 2016, Stingray advertised itself as a business that:
“[S]pecializes in providing turn-key voter trailer installation services and election services. We have completed over 70 trailer installations in Texas over the last 10 years and have supported nearly 100 elections. We locate residents, perform landlord services support residents in changing their license and voter registration and assist with the district election. We have worked with a host of major developers and engineers including Lennar, Toll Brothers, Friendswood, Land Tejas, Taylor Morrison, Pate Engineers, Brown & Gay—to name just a few.”
Stingray Services, which provided the trailer to the voters in district 148, declined to comment.
Aside from complaint referrals, citizens have little recourse for the bulldozers that create the districts and their taxation.
Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright said he received a handful of complaints over rent-a-voters who moved to elect boards and approve taxation last year.
“But I have no authority over that,” Lambright said. “Ultimately, the best idea is to take it to the legislature.”
Relief from lawmakers is unlikely.
In a report issued in December, the state House Committee on Special Purpose Districts noted that utility districts were an important part of handling the population and business growth:
“By enabling home building to occur in areas where the funding of infrastructure would not likely take place, [utility districts] have greatly contributed to the inventory of new homes in the State of Texas,” the report stated, also pointing out that governance of the districts was “low cost, low overhead and local control.”
“Of course, before [utility district] bonds can be issued, they must be authorized by the voters of the [district] at an election held in conformance with Texas Election Code requirements on a uniform election date.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].