A San Mateo County Superior Court judge on Wednesday ruled that East Palo Alto City Council member Antonio Lopez did not violate election laws during his campaign, further cementing his seat on the council after a narrow victory last fall.
"This is not just a personal victory for me but for the city of East Palo Alto — it is a reminder that losing candidates cannot sue their way into office," Lopez said in a statement during a virtual press conference on Thursday. "At last, I can fully devote my time and energy not to litigate, but legislate. Now, 91 days after I took my oath of office, without the distraction of a frivolous lawsuit, I can completely invest in the concerns of my community."
The lawsuit filed on Dec. 7 by candidate Webster Lincoln, who was 69 votes shy of winning a council seat, accused Lopez of interfering with the Election Day process by campaigning within 100 feet of a voting center and ballot drop box, while offering voters free tacos.
"The Court finds that Lincoln did not prove by clear and convincing evidence … that Lopez committed an offense against the elective franchise," Judge Danny Chou, who presided over the case, wrote in a proposed statement of decision filed March 10. "Accordingly, the Court denies Lincoln's Statement of Contest and declines to annul the City Council election or order any of the other relief sought by Lincoln."
Lincoln did not respond to requests for comment.
In a trial brief, Lopez's attorneys argued that there was no evidence that Lopez bribed in-person voters in a deliberate attempt to influence their vote and instead was giving free tacos near the voting center at Saint Francis of Assisi Church "to encourage the community to vote, and not for the purpose of procuring his election."
"Ultimately, in my view, this case was about democracy," said Ann Ravel, a former Democratic commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, who represented Lopez pro bono, in an interview. "It was an attempt by Mr. Lopez's wealthy opponent to essentially nullify the will of the people in East Palo Alto by making these spurious claims."
Eleven witnesses were brought before the trial, including some city and county staff responsible for overseeing election conduct and who have previously told this news organization that there were no signs of illegal electioneering when residents first brought up the issue on Election Day.
Martin McTaggart, an elections specialist supervisor for San Mateo County and one of the trial witnesses, testified that although there may have been "uncertainty" and "confusion" over the 100-feet buffer between the location of the taco truck and the voting center as well as a vote-by-mail ballot box, which was later moved due to concerns of its proximity, no one had "intentionally" violated election laws.
The judge's written decision did note: "Any illegal electioneering that may have occurred at St. Francis was due to a mistake made by County election officials."
During his press conference on Thursday, Lopez said he had not yet thought about pursuing a countersuit against Lincoln.
"Webster, let's come together and focus on the issues that plague our loved ones," Lopez said during the conference as a peace offering.
Lopez added that his immediate focus lies on vaccinating East Palo Alto, an issue he advocated for during a press conference earlier this month.
Because the verdict was delivered through a proposed statement of decision, both parties have until March 17 to object to the results of the case and request a hearing.
Lincoln's attorney, Mark Rosen, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.