Mario Perez knew that his currency with the esteemed law firm of Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson was his ability to persuade school board members, city councilmen, and other public officials to award contracts to the law firm.
The Texas-based law firm specializes in the collection of delinquent accounts on behalf of cities, school districts, and other municipalities, and does it well, handling the chores for governments in 22 states.
So in 2010, Perez, who was working as an “income partner” at the firm, sent a letter to the Fort Worth office’s managing partner Steve Meeks listing his accomplishments and connections.
“In May 2009, we were all proud to reclaim the Keller ISD contract from [collections competitor] Perdue Joint Venture,” Perez wrote in a letter obtained by Texas Monitor. “It came after creating new relationships and participation in the political process to help elect a slate of fair-minded and objective trustees at the KISD.”
In addition, he cited his similarly close relationships with several Fort Worth ISD trustee challengers, “who were able to defeat incumbent FWISD trustees” in a recent election.
Connections such as those Perez references in his letter have landed Linebarger at the center of an investigation by the state Attorney General’s office into voter fraud in Tarrant County, where tens of thousands of mail-in ballots in elections dating to 2014 are alleged to have been signed by the same person in violation of state law, according to the conservative political group Direct Action.
In documents being used by state investigators, Linebarger is at the top of a chain of command in an elaborate scheme to harvest mail-in ballots for a cadre of candidates around Tarrant County.
Linebarger’s direct ally in making this happen, according to the flowchart held by the state, is Mario Perez.
The information provided to the state Attorney General’s office at the beginning of 2016 claims that Linebarger has paid to gain votes for select candidates, funneling money through a series of agents including Perez. That money then flows to canvassers who allegedly manipulate the mail-in ballot process.
Most of the races are local, including the Fort Worth Independent School District and the city council.
In context, though, Perez appears to be simply a rainmaker for the firm, essentially a guy who pulls in business.
Rainmaker is a standard position at law firms across the country. Those are players who push the buttons and move elected officials into awarding large municipal contracts to their particular firm.
“A rainmaker is the person who brings the clients, the one who has the contacts and influence and ability to bring revenue into the firm,” said Brent Tantillo, a Miami lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney.
That coveted influence extends to the political arena, Tantillo said.
“There is a revolving door of people who come out of government and those individuals usually have the best contacts.”
While the voter fraud accusations are unfounded at this point, the fact that any investigation of this nature — called by Gov. Greg Abbott in October as the “largest voter fraud investigation in Texas history…” — includes a massive, well-equipped, and often-controversial law firm is rare.
“The AG’s office goes after low hanging fruit,” said Randall “Buck” Wood, an Austin attorney considered an expert in Texas election law. “But not usually the kind of voter fraud that changes the outcome of an election.”
Since July 2005, the state Attorney General’s office has prosecuted 97 voter fraud cases. Eight cases have been dismissed, two convictions have been reversed on appeal, and in three cases a grand jury declined to indict for lack of evidence.
Most of the convictions — 51 of them — have come from guilty pleas, many to lesser charges.
In Texas, voters who are disabled, out of the county on election day, incarcerated, or 65 years or older are eligible to use the mailed-in forms.
Qualified canvassers can assist voters in filing absentee mail-in ballots, according to state law. But as non-relatives, canvassers are not allowed to sign on behalf of voters.
The individuals prosecuted by the AG’s office since 2005 have been bit players — people making money by working on behalf of local candidates. Most of those cases have been from South Texas.
There is little in the election code that would encourage prosecutors to go after larger players, who could then establish a system of mail-in voter fraud.
Linebarger and its team have been dogged by controversy:
- In 2002 Linebarger partner Juan M. Peña resigned after being indicted in connection with the bribery of two San Antonio city council members. Peña plotted to pay $12,000 to the councilmen in exchange for a collections contract. Caught in a sting, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in prison and surrendered his law license.
- In 2003 a competing collections group, Municipal Services Bureau, filed a lawsuit against Linebarger that landed in federal court, alleging violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in connection with the Peña case. The matter ended in a confidential settlement.
- In 2007 the city of Mansfield, Texas, canceled the Linebarger contract after Mario Perez made a $2,000 donation to the mayor a month after he was elected.
- In 2012 Perez was indicted in Tarrant County on criminal allegations that he falsified campaign reports to hide campaign contributions to an Arlington school board member. Linebarger at the time was seeking to get the debt collections contract from the district. A spokesman for the firm said that Perez was fired. Perez paid a small fine, the criminal charges were dropped, and he was never convicted.
Today, Perez is back at the firm as a partner, rehired after the charges went away. He did not return a call.
In a 2015 interview with the Dallas Morning News, Perez blamed the Arlington indictment on a vituperative estranged wife.
“I was taken advantage of by people with a political agenda, with an ax to grind,” Perez told the newspaper.
In 2010, he portrayed himself as an ace political player in his letter to the firm, seeking to double his salary.
“It was my long standing close relationships with a majority of the existing Arlington ISD school board…which helped ensure a fair and impartial staff recommendation process that resulted in a glowing recommendation for our firm and a unanimous vote,” Perez wrote.
In his note, Perez references former state representative Glenn Lewis, now a partner at Linebarger’s Fort Worth office.
“…I was asked by Glenn Lewis to help secure the city of Fort Worth contract to show my worth and as a sign of good faith,” he wrote.
Perez today appears to be a favorite son at Linebarger, despite the somewhat checkered past.
Lewis said Perez and others at the firm are part of an effort to “maintaining positive client relationships” with elected officials. For a firm that Lewis said relies almost solely on contracts, being tight with public officials is an integral part of the operation.
The voter fraud allegations are mired in politics, Lewis said, rather than substance.
He noted that Direct Action, the group that did a lot of the heavy ground work regarding the Tarrant County voter fraud investigation before it was picked up by the state, has backed candidates that have opposed Linebarger-supported office seekers and holders.
“This has become all too common place,” Lewis said. “When someone loses an election, they claim there is voter fraud.”
Read more about mail-in ballot fraud on The Texas Monitor:
- Voter fraud crackdown a step closer with House committee vote
- Will legislation — finally — crack down on mail-in voter fraud?
- Texas mail-in voter fraud common, solutions to it less so
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].