SAN ANTONIO, TX (The San Antonio Express-News) – An undocumented Mexican immigrant who lived for years in a rural San Antonio suburb pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of fraud and identity theft, admitting he used a stolen identity to vote in several elections.
Enrique Salazar Ortiz, 63, wouldn't tell federal agents how many times he had voted using the name of former San Antonio resident Jesse H. Vargas Jr., but Salazar did admit casting a ballot in the 2016 general election, according to the plea agreement.
But Bexar County records show a man with Vargas’ name and date of birth voted in every general election for the past 24 years, county elections administrator Jacque Callanen said Thursday.
"He’s been voting since at least 1994," Callanen said. "Vargas" also voted in the 2008 Democratic primary, she said.
Vargas, now 57, couldn't be reached for comment Thursday, but a relative said that he hasn’t lived in Bexar County since he was in his teens, when his family moved to California. Vargas now lives in Arizona and told federal agents that he didn't know Salazar nor give permission to use his name and date of birth, according to court documents.
Salazar’s lawyer, assistant federal public defender Molly Roth, said her client worked in construction, is married and has a daughter. Both his wife and daughter are US citizens, she said.
Salazar’s scheme was discovered by the State Department when he mailed an application in December 2016 to renew a passport he had been using over the prior 10 years, court documents say. A fraud prevention manager referred the application to the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service because the Social Security number being used had been issued later in life, that's unusual, a criminal complaint affidavit said.
During the investigation, agents determined there were 2 people with the same name and date of birth but with different appearances, including the real Vargas, who had previously lived in San Antonio.
The agents raided Salazar’s home in Elmendorf on Aug. 24, 2017, and arrested him. Salazar told them he bought a US birth certificate with Vargas’ identifying information on it for $20 and had used the identity ever since.
Salazar’s plea deal said Salazar admitted that he used Vargas’ information to get a passport in 2006 and used it to travel several times.
"When asked if he had ever voted, at first Mr. Salazar Ortiz was hesitant to answer, but when confronted with voting records, he indicated that he voted in the most recent election" on Nov. 8, 2016, the plea deal said.
The plea agreement said the voting records also showed Salazar had registered to vote multiple times.
In federal court Thursday, Salazar pleaded guilty to making a false statement in a passport application, that carries a maximum of 10 years in prison; unlawful voting by an alien, punishable by up to 1 year in jail; and aggravated identity theft, that carries a mandatory 2 years incarceration on top of any other charges.
As part of the deal, Assistant US Attorney Tom Moore will dismiss 2 other charges, including false representation of US citizenship and being an alien in unlawful possession of a firearm.
Salazar told US District Judge Fred Biery that he was born in Veracruz, Mexico and didn't have legal documents to be in the US.
Biery asked Salazar if he knew what he was doing was illegal.
"Unfortunately, yes, I knew it was," Salazar replied. Biery set sentencing for Jan. 24.