Beaumont mayoral race kicks off with eligibility questions

Beaumont mayoral race kicks off with eligibility questions

Former Beaumont water utilities director Dr. Hani Tohme, ousted from the position in 2015 after an audit allegedly uncovered deficiencies in the department, including in oversight and payroll spending, has applied for candidacy to run against longtime Mayor Becky Ames in the coming May election. Whether he will have that chance may be up to a district court judge, however, as questions over Tohme’s ability to meet the election code’s residency specifications have surfaced.

According to Texas election code, a viable candidate for mayor of a municipality must meet certain minimum requirements: be a U.S. citizen, be 18 or older, mentally fit, felony-free, a resident of the state for 12 months, registered to vote in the municipality, and a resident of the city for six months prior to the election filing deadline.

Tohme said he meets all the requirements, and swore as much when producing his application for candidacy, according to city secretary Tina Broussard.

To prove that he has been a resident of Beaumont for the required amount of time, Tohme produced a copy of a lease agreement dated May 2016. According to the lease provided to the city, Tohme changed his residency from the $300,000 home in a gated Pleasure Island community where he has lived long-term to the Westwood Estates trailer park across from the municipal tennis courts on College Street.

Tohme told The Examiner that he decided to run for mayor of Beaumont in May 2016, but would not comment on his residency status, referring to the College Street address.

The lease agreement for the trailer is between Tohme and True Southern Real Estate, owned by Mohammad S. Javed, who Tohme recently worked for on a contract basis while campaigning to open a Riceland Farms slaughterhouse in Port Arthur. A True Southern representative, and attorney Chris Portner, supported Tohme’s assertion of holding a valid lease at the trailer park, but could not confirm whether the lessee actually stayed a single day or night there.

Pointedly asked whether he ever actually resided at the trailer park, Tohme would not answer.

“I feel like I’m within the rules,” he said. According to Tohme, he maintains a residence in Port Arthur, two in Beaumont, and one in Vidor. Tohme agreed that he would not be eligible to run for office in Vidor, he said, “because I don’t stay there.”

“Have you ever stayed at the College Street address?” No comment, Tohme said.

Neighbors of the College Street trailer don’t recall ever seeing Tohme there – and were adamant they’ve never seen his sleek, black Mercedes parked in the neighborhood. One girl did say she say she knew who did live there up until the first of the year, and she identified him as Tariq Hameed. Attempts to reach Hameed to confirm his residency were unsuccessful, but mail was sent to Hameed at that address.

Tohme refers to the election code to define his residence eligibility. Texas Election Code defines “residence” as “domicile, that is, one’s home and fixed place of habitation to which one intends to return after any temporary absence,” and further states that “a person does not acquire a residence in a place to which the person has come for temporary purposes only and without the intention of making that place the person’s home.”

As of Friday, Jan. 27, Tohme still had a water bill in his name for the Pleasure Island address listed on his driver’s license as of Jan. 22. According to records from the Texas Department of Public Safety, Tohme changed his driver’s license address Jan. 23, from Pleasure Island to an apartment on Old Dowlen Road in Beaumont that he signed a lease on three days prior.

No public record – other than the lease provided for the trailer park – supports Tohme’s residency at the College Street address; there was no change of address to the location, no utilities in Tohme’s name as the trailer came with all bills paid, and no voter registration to that address, as well.

In fact, other public data seems to support Tohme’s residency in Port Arthur. According to a title registration for a motorcycle under Tohme’s name, he was still receiving official mail in Pleasure Island (Port Arthur) in August 2016.

Also, according to voting records, Tohme voted as a resident of Precinct 104, which encompasses the section of Port Arthur known as Pleasure Island, as recently as the November 2016 General Election. Tohme also voted as a resident of Precinct 104 in the previous March Primary Election and May Municipal Election.

Theresa Goodness, Jefferson County Clerk chief deputy and election supervisor, said that voting booth workers are trained to ask voters if the address they are voting under is still correct. If they answer no, she said, they are required to immediately fill out for new voter registration to their actual residence. No form was filled out in November when Tohme voted in Port Arthur’s election.

“We ask every voter ‘Do you live at this address?’” Goodness said, but added that the election staff is not allowed to check to see if the voter is telling the truth. “Basically, it’s just the voters’ word.”

Just the candidate’s word is all that’s required when filing for candidacy with the city, as well, Broussard said.

“I make sure the information is all there,” Broussard said. “They swear an oath that everything they put on the application is true an correct. Then I accept the application and process it.

“He swore under oath the information on the application is true and correct – and I have to take him on his word. I’m just the filing authority. My job is not to regulate.”

According to Broussard, “if the mayor, or a private citizen, wants to challenge him on it, they could,” but it would have to be a private action in district court.

“If someone suspects or wants to challenge someone on the six-month residence qualification requirement … that’s state law. … They would have to file something in the district court. The district court could grant an injunction from having their name on the ballot or issue a writ of mandamus … but it has to be filed in court, and it has to be determined by a judge.” 

No court filing had been made as of Wednesday, Feb. 1.

Tohme expressed his displeasure in being questioned as to his residence in the city as, according to him, he’s being singled out in what is tantamount to a “birther-type movement.”

“I’m within the rules; and if I’m wrong, please prove me wrong,” he said.

According to Broussard, Tohme is the only non-incumbent who has filed for a position on the City Council. The deadline to file for the May 6 city of Beaumont election is Feb. 17, and all seats are up for election.