*Editor's note: This story is updated throughout.
Attorney General Greg Abbott's office said Friday it is recusing itself from any investigation of Battleground Texas over allegations that the Democratic group's voter registration activities ran afoul of state election law.
Meanwhile, a Battleground aide blasted Republican leaders for, as he described it, attempting to intimidate the group from signing up voters in a state that has a notoriously low voter participation rate.
“Battleground Texas is in full compliance with the law," said Battleground spokesman Ellis Brachman. "In our efforts to register voters, we are facing unfounded, inaccurate and misleading assertions by Republicans directed at one thing — making sure fewer Texans vote."
In the letter from the attorney general's office, which was sent to the Bexar County district attorney's office, Deputy Attorney General Don Clemmer said it had received three referrals from the office of Texas secretary of state alleging violations of the election code by a Battleground representative conducting registration activities in Bexar County.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst asked for the matter to be referred to Abbott's office earlier Friday. Abbott's office then wrote Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed to say it would defer to local authorities.
"This office is recusing itself from this and is therefore referring the case to the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office because the allegations in question reportedly occurred within your office’s jurisdiction," Clemmer wrote. The issue is something of a hot potato because Abbott is running for governor and his expected Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth partners with Battleground on fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Dewhurst, who is in a hot four-way re-election race, wrote a letter to the secretary of state's office about his concerns over Battleground, started by operatives who worked on President Obama's winning presidential campaigns. He cited allegations that the group had collected phone numbers in violation of election laws.
“Texans whose personal information has been harvested under the guise of a voter registration effort not only deserve an explanation, but also assurances that their information has been destroyed by any entity other than the secretary of state's office,” Dewhurst wrote. “In my view, the seriousness of this issue merits immediate referral to the attorney general's office."
The attorney general's office said it hasn't yet received a criminal complaint. The Bexar County district attorney, Republican Susan Reed, was quoted by KENS-TV in San Antonio as saying it's her call as to whether she should investigate the allegations herself or refer the matter to Abbott.
The flap stems from a videotaped conversation with Battleground Texas volunteers in Bexar County. It was gathered surreptitiously by controversial conservative activist James O’Keefe, who has sent people posing as interested volunteers to infiltrate Democratic or liberal activist groups, after which he disseminates video that was secretly gathered.
The office of Texas Secretary of State Nandita Berry suggested earlier this week that the group's voter registration practices might rise to a “potential level of offense” of state election law.
In the video, an unedited version of which The Texas Tribune reviewed, a Battleground voter registration coordinator is quoted as saying the group takes phone numbers gathered as part of the registration process. She said the phone numbers would be used to call the voters close to election time to urge them to vote.
“Once we register people to vote tonight, we will all turn in our cards and our data person will enter, not all the information, but name, address and phone number,” the Battleground representative says. “We can then call everyone here and say, 'Hi, I registered you to vote.'”
O’Keefe’s group, Project Veritas, which has been known to manipulate videos to make them seem more damaging to the people in them, claims Battleground broke state election law by collecting the phone numbers.
Whether Battleground did anything wrong in the process comes down to how the law is interpreted. Section 13.004 of the Texas Election Code says, in part, that county registration officials may not “transcribe, copy or otherwise record a telephone number furnished on a registration application.”
According to Berry spokesman Jeff Hillery, the "volunteer deputy registrars" who sign up voters for groups like Battleground Texas are subject to the same criminal liability that applies to county officials. A violation of that statute is considered misdemeanor “official misconduct” and is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, jail time of up to six months or both, the law says. Hillery said phone numbers on voter registration applications are treated as confidential information.
Hillery noted that the office of the secretary of state has no power to investigate or enforce the law.
“Since our office isn’t an investigative or enforcement agency, we can’t speak to a potential level of offense; that’s a question best directed” to Abbott, he said.
Brachman, of Battleground, took note of O'Keefe's controversial past, which includes a guilty plea to entering a federal building under false pretenses. He said the new allegations are based on an "admitted criminal" whose partisan Republican antics of doctoring videos are well known."
"Those associating themselves with him, making claims of fraud and using his rhetoric for their political gain should be ashamed of themselves," Brachman said. "What is undoubtedly true is that if Republicans are willing to stoop to such transparent tactics then they are terrified of the prospect of more Texans going to the ballot box."
Brachman said in the "the next few days we will send a more detailed response exposing these claims as utterly without foundation in Texas law."
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