In April 2017, just a few weeks before Sweetwater's elections, Commissioner Isolina Maroño and mayoral candidate Saul Díaz were riding in a car together when they were stopped by police. Officers found inside the vehicle multiple absentee ballots belonging to Maroño's relatives.
Officials confirmed to local media they were investigating possible voter fraud, and when the city election rolled around in May, Maroño lost. This past January, prosecutors filed charges against the former commissioner for violating a county ordinance involving possession of mail-in ballots.
Now, Maroño — the mother of former Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño, who was sentenced to more than three years in prison after pleading guilty in a conspiracy case — is fighting back. Last week, she filed a lawsuit against the county, saying the traffic stop was politically motivated.
"This was a targeted stop," says Maroño's lawyer, Jose Herrera. "They had private investigators that were bird-dogging them."
Maroño's complaint outlines a theory dating to late 2016, when a political committee launched a campaign to recall Mayor Orlando Lopez. The effort failed but effectively divided the city's commission candidates into two slates: Lopez's supporters and Lopez's opposition.
According to the suit, Maroño was perceived to be a Lopez supporter and therefore came under surveillance from operatives in the opposition. The ex-commissioner claims her opponents hired private investigators with ties to the county police department who then started rumors that Maroño and her allies were involved in voter fraud.
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"The plan or tactic was to make allegations of election fraud against Mayor Lopez's supporters so that law enforcement could pre-textually initiate an investigation and the fact of that 'investigation' could be disseminated to the media to intimidate and/or dissuade Sweetwater residents from associating and/or supporting those candidates supporting Mayor Lopez's administration," the complaint alleges.
Maroño's case also raises questions about the traffic stop and the county ordinance she was charged with violating. Her attorney says the ballots inside the vehicle belonged to Maroño's aunt, uncle, and cousin and were inside sealed envelopes that Maroño planned to mail. The lawsuit argues the county's ordinance conflicts with a state law that says it's fine for a person to possess other people's absentee ballots as long as he or she doesn't accept compensation for mailing them.
"The state statute preempts the county from enacting this ordinance," Herrera says.
The county has yet to file a response to the accusations; a spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation.