Longform

Perfect Timing: How Malcontent Wiseasses Tried to Prove a Point About Politics and Ended up Charged as Felons

Adrian Heath heard the jury on that October morning loud but not clear.

The foreman exhaled the word "guilty," and Heath felt its jarring weight in his head and his stomach as he stood in a Montgomery County ­courtroom.

Heath was now a felon, convicted by the state of Texas for voter fraud, a charge pushed by the voting enforcement unit of state Attorney General Greg Abbott's office.

What he couldn't quite figure out was just how he had become a convicted criminal. At 56 years old, the Australian immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen had never been in a criminal court in his life. Now he faced two years in prison, with a judge scheduled to hand down his sentence on January 30.

In May 2010, Heath, along with nine of his fellow suburban neighbors from in and around The Woodlands, gathered at a Residence Inn hotel inside the confines of the Woodlands Road Utility District, a 2,475-acre taxing body that is connected to The Woodlands by a coalition of developers, lawyers and well-to-do local insiders. The group included a retiree, a homemaker, a tile contractor, a salesman and an oil-equipment technician.

Heath and his friends claimed residency inside the district despite staying only two nights at the hotel. They did so to elect three of their colleagues in order to usurp the incumbent balance of power in the district. They believed the district was running up public debt and wanted to stop that.

Heath and his colleagues figured they were standing up for their rights, hoping to be part of a system that was imposing taxes indirectly on them in a commercial area in which they did much of their shopping and dining. And they were certain that their group was working within the very blurry lines of state law regarding residency and voting.

The law they followed says that the voter residency requirement can be determined "by the voter," as Randall Dillard, a spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State's office, stated in February 2010.

Dillard's statement was repeated like a mantra among Heath and his pals in the weeks leading up to the election. They succeeded in getting their own candidates in office by changing their voting registration residences in April 2010.

But as in a scene gone wrong in a caper movie, in June 2010, a district judge ruled the election and the group's part in it invalid and tossed the results.

That might have been the end of it, with a few malcontented wiseasses fruitlessly trying to prove a point.

Instead, as it turned out, the troublemakers had picked a very bad time to make their stand.

One of the first things Abbott did when he was elected attorney general in 2002 was to enhance the office's voter fraud division, saying that for too long, Texas had turned a blind eye to the white-collar crime. In the years since, his troops had focused on South Texas, admittedly a historic hotbed of election abuse, but the result was that while prison sentences were rare, they almost always involved minorities, Democrats and those in lower economic groups.

The Woodlands group was composed of white self-described conservatives, middle-class and above. How much better for Abbott, now running for governor, to prove that he was not biased. Heath became convinced that Abbott thought convicting the Woodlands voters would give his candidacy a boost. In fact, Heath says, that's what state Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican lawmaker from Montgomery County, essentially told him one day.

"Toth said words to the effect, 'I called up there (Abbott's office), and they said, 'We have 150 Democrats and six Republicans; we are not going to let the Republicans go,'" Heath said. (Toth told the Houston Press he didn't recall anyone from Abbott's office telling him that.)

So now the troublemakers, none of whom had ever faced a criminal charge, were being prosecuted by the state on the third-degree felony charge of illegal voting . The Attorney General's Office contends that they intentionally changed their addresses and claimed false residency for political gain, with no intention of living in a hotel. They all had homes elsewhere, some with mortgages, where they had their possessions and spouses.

"It seems strange that we could go to prison and no one would care," said Heath, a salesman by trade who came to the United States in 1983.

"We've been abandoned by the people who go out and say they want more transparent government that is responsible to the people. I thought people from both sides of the political aisle would see this corporatist government using the system to enrich themselves and see us as people who stood up to it."
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Take exit 76B off Interstate 45 north of Houston and you find yourself smack in the midsection of the road utility district, shortened to RUD when anyone speaks of it. The Woodlands is a super-planned community with perfectly sculptured tree lines, finely measured curbs and an immaculately manicured canal. The place is also money.

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Steve Miller