January 07,2006 Marc B. Geller The Monitor
EDINBURG — La Joya’s city secretary is free after posting bond Friday following her arraignment earlier in the day on one count of tampering with a governmental record.
Julianita R. Sabala, 55, of La Joya, pleaded not guilty to the state jail felony during the morning arraignment before Judge Noe Gonzalez in 370th state District Court.
A grand jury out of the 275th state District Court indicted Sabala, a lifelong Hidalgo County resident, on Dec. 21 after it found she had signed the name of her daughter, a college student in Austin, to an application for a mail-in ballot for the city’s May 7 general election.
Sabala faces a jail term of 180 days to two years and a possible fine of up to $10,000 if convicted of the charge. She has retained attorney Felipe Garcia Jr., brother of Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, to handle her defense.
"Basically, there’s been no crime committed," Felipe Garcia Jr. said after the arraignment. "We’re looking forward to her day in court."
Prosecuting attorney Joseph Orendain did not return a message seeking comment.
Generally, tampering with a governmental record is a Class A misdemeanor, but the offense rises to the level of a state jail felony if the person’s intent is to defraud or harm someone.
Felipe Garcia Jr. said Sabala was acting "in an unofficial capacity," as a private citizen, when she signed her daughter’s name to the mail-in ballot application. He said his client immediately accepted responsibility for her action as soon as she realized she had done something wrong.
The revelation came when the ballot board for the city’s May 7 election decided that the signature on the carrier envelope in which the daughter mailed in her ballot did not match the signature on the mail-in ballot application the city previously received. Ultimately, the daughter’s vote wasn’t counted.
"They questioned the signature’s comparison, and she immediately told them, ‘Well, that’s because I signed it.’ She said, ‘I signed it because my daughter’s in Austin, and she wanted to vote, and I wanted her to vote, so she asked me to request (the mail-in ballot) for her, and I did.’"
State law prescribes that the city secretary is the early voting clerk for an election ordered by an authority of a city and is responsible for conducting the early voting in each of that city’s elections.
Sabala declined to comment after her arraignment, but attorney Garcia said his client had cooperated fully with the grand jury and anyone who questioned her about signing her daughter’s signature.
"I think that she must have believed in her heart that because it involved her child, and the child was requesting it, that it was all right," he said. "And I guess she realized later very quickly that it wasn’t, but she quickly let everybody know how it came about."
He said he would have liked to see some prosecutorial discretion exercised in Sabala’s favor and noted that one of the elements of the indictment is the claim that Sabala intended to defraud or harm the voters of La Joya.
"Well, clearly her only intent was that her daughter vote. Did she make a mistake? Yes. But is it a crime? I don’t believe so. And that’s basically the position we’re taking."
The grand jury’s indictment of Sabala came at the conclusion of a term that lasted more than five months and coincided with indictments of nine other people in connection with the McAllen general election. Among those were Othal Eugene Brand Jr., son of former five-term McAllen mayor Othal Brand Sr. and manager of the elder Brand’s mayoral campaign in that election.
"I don’t know if the timing is coincidental with anything," Felipe Garcia Jr. said of Sabala’s indictment. "But it certainly seems like the indictment was rather late in coming."
During the arraignment Friday, the attorney told the court that Sabala had never had any trouble with the law prior to her indictment and successfully lobbied for a personal recognizance bond, which the court set at $5,000. The court also permitted him to drive Sabala to the county jail for processing before she posted bond.
The case is set to go to trial Jan. 17.
Marc B. Geller covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4445