Sid Johnson, a self-described junk man who ran a scrap business from his modest home, had enough of the back-room dealings in Waller County. So he worked under cover for the FBI to help convict five local politicians on corruption charges in recent years. He then decided to seek political office himself. Johnson, 47, had high hopes of becoming the first black councilman elected in his hometown of Waller, population of 2,200, nestled in the hilly prairie off U.S. 290.
However, when ballots were tallied May 14, Johnson lost by five votes. But his defeat has since sparked so many rumblings of voter fraud that he joined forces with the town’s mayor, Danny Marburger, who is white, to take voter complaints of intimidation and being turned away from the polls to the FBI and U.S. Justice Department.
The FBI will not confirm whether an investigation is in progress. But Marburger said that during the last two months, FBI agents have circulated through the town 40 miles northwest of Houston taking statements from voters and city secretary Jo Ann London, who serves as election chief. Adding mystery to the controversy, Marburger discovered this week that London had cameras disguised as smoke detectors installed around City Hall.
One camera is mounted in London’s office and another in a meeting room where early voting is held. Johnson wants to know if London could watch and see how everyone was voting in the May election.
Marburger said the secret cameras were never authorized by council. He said he believes the video being transmitted to London’s computer is a privacy violation and tantamount to spying. London refused comment on the cameras, saying, “I will not discuss the security of the building.”
However, she said she had the authority without council’s permission to install cameras. “Security is under my purview as long as I have money in my budget,” she said.
Waller Councilman Dwayne Hajek disagreed. “She would have to go through us first if that were to be done,” Hajek said. “I’m surprised. I would need to look into this.”
Texas Municipal League spokesman Bennett Sandlin said cameras in public buildings usually are clearly displayed and monitored by a security guard. “To have secretive surveillance cameras is very odd,” he said.
Marburger said he found the cameras after some city employees complained of an eerie “feeling of being watched.”
They showed him a video recorder whose serial number is listed on the Spy.com website for clandestine surveillance. The five suspicious “smoke detectors” are attached to the ceilings of the small brown brick City Hall. It’s unclear when they were installed.