Nearly the entire Harris County Democratic legislative delegation has asked the county attorney and district attorney to open a criminal investigation into the candidacy of a Texas House candidate whose existence was called into question after this year’s March election.
The candidate, one of four in the primary race for state Rep. Harold Dutton’s seat, received enough votes to help force Dutton, a longtime Houston Democrat, into a runoff this year.
“We are concerned that more than 2500 Harris County voters may have been duped into voting for a non-existent candidate, a serious theft of those voters' most important right, and three legitimate candidates were harmed by the crimes committed,” reads the March 18 letter, which was signed by every delegation member except Dutton and released to a Tribune reporter on Thursday. “We request that your offices coordinate an immediate investigation into the events documented in the attached memo and take appropriate prosecutorial action at the earliest possible time.”
Dutton was the only Democrat from Houston not to sign the letter, which was also signed by the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats — including former at-large Houston City Council member Carroll Robinson, who serves as president of the group — and several other community leaders.
District Attorney Kim Ogg's office, in response to a public information request from The Texas Tribune, provided a March 26 letter Ogg sent to members of the delegation who had called for an investigation, saying their request had been forwarded to the public corruption division "for immediate review" and noting it would be "the only official response you receive until, and if, criminal action is taken."
"Please be assured that the protection of our democratic election process, along with enforcement of all related laws, is a top priority for my Administration and that your complaint will be addressed by this Office," Ogg wrote."Finally, it is the policy of the Harris County District Attorney to neither confirm nor deny the existence of a criminal investigation into any matter brought before the Public Corruption Division."
County Attorney Vince Ryan's office did not respond to a request for comment.
The issue at hand centers on the candidacy of Natasha Ruiz, who was one of four names on the ballot in the Democratic primary for House District 142, a seat Dutton has held since 1985. Dutton, who received about 45% of the vote, was forced into a runoff with Houston City Council member Jerry Davis, who got 25%. Ruiz, who was absent from the campaign trail, received about 20%, while Richard Bonton, who ran for the seat in 2018, received nearly 9%.
The day after the election, ABC13 in Houston said it called the phone number listed for Ruiz in her candidate filing. The woman who answered identified herself as “Natasha Demming” — a truck driver in Colorado who did not know why her name would have been used to sign up to run for the House seat.
The person at the listed number has not responded to multiple text messages and calls since the report first surfaced in March. On Thursday, someone answered the line, but hung up after a Tribune reporter identified herself and requested a comment.
Dutton, who said in March he had hired a private investigator to look into the matter, told the Tribune on Thursday that he was not involved with the delegation’s letter to Ogg and Ryan and was focused on winning the runoff election, which is now slated for mid-July instead of May.
“I hope someone takes a look at the system that allows this to happen and cleans it up so that it can’t happen again,” he said. “If there are people who have engaged in a conspiracy, I hope that law enforcement will deal with them in the proper context.”
Robinson, president of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, said in a news release that the district attorney needed to "promptly investigate this case and prosecute those who did this to the full extent of the law."
"With all the talk about Russia meddling in our elections," Robinson said, "it would be an outrage and a travesty to let some homegrown dirty tricksters get away with these crimes."
The delegation’s letter also included an attached “Indices of Election Fraud,” which detailed the background of the long-winding drama and “known facts indicating election fraud.” Those details included a mention of Marc Malacoff, who works for the Harris County Democratic Party and notarized Ruiz’s candidate filing paperwork, which was reviewed by the Tribune in March.
Ruiz’s application stated that it had been received and accepted by the local party on Dec. 9, 2019 — though Malacoff later acknowledged that he had made an error by initially putting Nov. 9.
DJ Ybarra, executive director for the party, told the Tribune on Thursday that the local party wants to be transparent and is “happy to work with anyone who wants more information.”
Several aspects of the situation, though, still have onlookers puzzled. For example, Ybarra told the Tribune in March that Ruiz produced a Texas driver's license as her form of photo ID when she submitted her candidate filing paperwork and paid the $750 fee in cash.
On top of that, Dutton said in March that questions about Ruiz's candidacy had first been flagged for him a few weeks before the election after an anonymous letter was sent to his law office, pointing out inconsistencies between Ruiz and a "Natasha Nicole Demming." Attached to the letter was a copy of a Harris County voter registration record for Demming, which included an address and phone number that matched the paperwork Ruiz filed with the local party. Ruiz, on that paperwork, listed her full name as "Natasha Demming Ruiz" and her ballot name as "Natasha Ruiz," and listed her occupation as a teacher.