The Dallas Morning News

Lawsuit targets rival

Espino seeks Pena’s removal from ballot, citing signature issue

- By ELVIA LIMÓN Staff Writer elimon@dallasnews.com

An Irving mayoral candidate has filed a lawsuit seeking to have one of her opponents removed from the May 6 ballot.

The suit, filed April 4 by a lawyer for Elvia Espino, asks Dallas County Elections Administra­tor Toni Pippins-Poole to remove Kristi Pena from considerat­ion. The suit cites a discrepanc­y in the signatures on Pena’s applicatio­n to be placed on the ballot.

According to the suit, the inclusion of Pena’s name on the ballot goes against the state’s

election code because her petition “failed to satisfy the requiremen­ts for eligibilit­y regarding the requisite number of verified registered voters’ signatures.”

It additional­ly states that Espino was harmed because Pena’s inclusion on the ballot required the city to redraw for ballot position, moving Espino’s position on the ballot from first to third.

“I had serious concerns regarding the process that I felt warranted the suit,” Espino said Tuesday. “And it boils down to the consistent applicatio­ns of the rules. I want to make clear that this is about the process, not about the individual.”

The suit, which lists PippinsPoo­le as the defendant, comes a month after the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas ordered Irving City Secretary Shanae Jennings to place Pena on the ballot. Jennings initially rejected Pena’s applicatio­n in February after Jennings could not confirm five of the 38 signatures, leaving her three short of the required 36 to be placed on the ballot.

In addition to ordering that Pena’s name be placed on the ballot, the appeals court ordered Jennings to “redraw for the order of names on the ballot.”

Wade Emmert, a lawyer for Pena, said the lawsuit has no merit because the appeals court already ordered Pena to be put on the ballot.

“Right now, it’s just nothing,” he said. “It basically rehashed what the court of appeals has decided.”

But Shayan Elahi, a lawyer for Espino, said he wants the suit to clarify whether the signatures provided by Pena were valid, since he does not believe the city got an acceptable answer to that question from the appellate court.

“The only thing that the appellate court said was that the city secretary must accept the affidavits after the deadline,” Elahi said. “They never went to the signatures themselves, so that’s where we come in.”

Elahi said the suit names Pippins-Poole the defendant because the city loses jurisdicti­on over ballots once the Dallas County Elections Office receives the candidates’ names. He said it is now up to Pippins-Poole to take any steps to remove Pena from the ballot.

But Pippins-Poole said Tuesday that she had not seen the lawsuit and that she has no authority in the matter.

“It is a city of Irving election,” she said. “All I do is administer their election. I have no jurisdicti­on over the candidates. My jurisdicti­on is to conduct the election.”

She said a change in the ballot would cause confusion for voters, many of whom have already been mailed ballots so they can vote early. As of Tuesday, 18 of 37 mailed ballots had been returned, Pippins-Poole said.

Pena also said she is not sure about the purpose of the suit, and she, too, noted the ruling by the appeals court in her favor.

“Irving voters need to know that my opponents will try anything to keep a solid conservati­ve from being elected mayor of our great city,” Pena said.

Besides Pena and Espino, J.C. Gonzalez and Rick Stopfer seek to replace Mayor Beth Van Duyne, who said last month that she has accepted an unnamed position with President Donald Trump’s administra­tion.

Elahi also filed a complaint with the city, claiming that Pena should be disqualifi­ed because she is in arrears with the city on a house she rents. Additional­ly, Elahi claims the city is violating the Texas Local Government Code by allowing Pena to rent the city-owned house “below market value.”

Pena pays $1,500 a month in rent for a city-owned Heritage District home valued at $666,650, according to the Dallas Central Appraisal District.

Elahi said Irving’s city charter states that a person who owes money to the city cannot run for office.

“The city secretary did not deny her based on her arrearage,” he said. “It’s not personal to Ms. Pena. Everybody running for office in Irving cannot own any past payments to the city. That could include utilities or anything of the above.”

City Attorney Kuruvilla Oommen declined to comment directly Tuesday on Elahi’s complaint. But Janet M. Spugnardi, the deputy city attorney, emailed a statement to Elahi on April 6 stating that the rental property “was brought current on February 20, 2017, prior to Ms. Pena being certified for placement on the ballot.”

Spugnardi’s email also said Elahi’s claim that Pena should be disqualifi­ed is “without merit.”

“Even if the lease to Ms. Pena were in violation of any state law (which the City denies), the City Secretary is without authority to use that as a basis to disqualify a candidate for office,” Spugnardi said.

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