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Officials React to Hartnett Report on Election Challenge

By Jennifer Bendery,

Austin, TX –

Swarmed by reporters today, Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin), chair of the House Select Committee on Election Contests, offered his reaction to the release of Rep. Will Hartnett's (R-Dallas) Master of Discovery Report concluding that Rep. Hubert Vo (D-Houston) won the House District 19 election by at least 16 votes over long-time incumbent Rep. Talmadge Heflin (R-Houston).

When asked if the committee is inclined to go along with the decisions in Hartnett's report, Keel reminded that there are three tiers to the election contest process. First the Master of Discovery files his report, then it goes to the committee and then to the full House. The committee's role is to review the report plus consider any other evidence, he said. Ultimately, however, the full House is the master arbitrator, said the Austin representative.

When the committee meets on Tuesday, it first will hear an oral presentation from Hartnett outlining the findings in the Master of Discovery report. Keel said attorneys for Heflin and Vo then will each have one hour and 15 minutes to "apply the law to the evidence" before the committee. The committee will deliberate over presented materials and vote on a motion to send the report to the full House. The report then will be taken up as a debatable motion on the House floor, said Keel, just like a bill being taken up.

House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) said Hartnett "did a good job" of weighing the evidence in putting together his 60-page report. "I commend Rep. Will Hartnett for the hard work he has put into completing his report," he said. "It is now up to the committee to review the information in the report to make a recommendation to the House." Craddick said he has "the utmost confidence in every committee member and the entire House to make a fair and just decision regarding the election contest."

When asked if he agreed with Hartnett's assessments, Craddick said he has not seen the facts. "But I have to agree" with Hartnett, he said. The House Speaker noted that he has asked committee members to act like jurors and not talk to attorneys on either side until the election contest is resolved.

When asked if he thought partisan tensions would be eased as a result of a Republican Master of Discovery recommending that a Democrat keep his seat in the House over a Republican, Craddick replied that "the House will do what's right," just as it always has, regardless of what party somebody may be. He added that he will probably not vote when the issue comes to the floor since the House Speaker rarely votes.

Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) welcomed Hartnett's findings but said they are "long overdue" since it has been three months since Vo was elected to the House in the November, 2004 General Election. He urged House members not only to move to end the election challenge "immediately" but also "to clear the air of the frivolous charges of fraud and abuse that have been made" against Vo by Heflin and his attorney, Andy Taylor. The Houston representative said Hartnett's findings make it clear that "any apparent fraud that was committed was the work of other campaigns, not Mr. Vo's."