By Elizabeth Findell
Published Feb. 25-26, 2014
Update on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 11:52 am:
Documents unsealed this morning have confirmed indictments against several Weslaco commissioners.
Lupe Rivera, John Cuellar, David Fox, Joe Martinez and Jerry Tafolla are accused of defying the Texas Open Meetings Act after having kicked the public out of a meeting.
Published Feb. 25, 2014, 8:56 p.m.:
EDINBURG — Weslaco city leaders learned that indictments against them accusing them of defying of the Texas Open Meetings Act would be unsealed Wednesday, a city commissioner’s lawyer said.
A grand jury convened throughout the past month heard testimony about the incident, which involved five current and former city commissioners ousting the audience from a public meeting in November.
Attorney Javier Peña, who represents Commissioner Jerry Tafolla, said Tuesday evening that Assistant District Attorney Paul Tarlow had left a message at his office saying the grand jury had handed down sealed indictments that would be made public Wednesday.
“After telling me there at the courthouse, shrugging his shoulders and saying he has to do what he’s being told to do, kind of giving us the impression that nothing was going to happen, because even he believes it’s bogus, we’re told that we have to show up tomorrow for the unsealing of an indictment,” Peña said.
Mayor Pro Tem John Cuellar and former Commissioner Joe Martinez received similar messages, three people familiar with the situation said. Peña added that he had seen nothing in writing requiring the commissioners appear for the unsealing.
It remained unclear whether indictments have been handed down for all five of the leaders and the exact charges to be lodged. Open Meetings Act violations are misdemeanor charges.
Incumbent city commissioners called the controversial special meeting after the city election, but before new members had been sworn in.
Cuellar, who was presiding over the meeting, ordered the room cleared after critics of his slate began laughing and shouting. Police Chief Michael Kelley removed everyone but city employees, including those who were making no noise, and posted an officer at the door so nobody could re-enter.
Commissioner Olga Noriega walked out of the meeting, but the others — Cuellar, Tafolla, Martinez, Lupe Rivera and David Fox — went on to vote on four items.
That resulted in a complaint to the district attorney from commission critic Benita Valadez that they had violated the Open Meetings Act, which requires public meetings be open to the public.
None of the commissioners involved responded to requests for comment Tuesday evening.
POLITICS AT PLAY?
Peña accused Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra of using the case as political retaliation amid a heated campaign for re-election.
He said he knew of other cases in Mercedes, Palmview and the La Joya school district where leaders had not been prosecuted for Open Meetings Act violations.
“If there are indictments for this, then we’re going to be suing Rene Guerra for prosecutorial misconduct,” he said. “It’s clear that it’s politically targeted. It’s clear that it’s because they’re supporting Ricardo Rodriguez for district attorney.”
Rodriguez, former 92nd state District Judge, is challenging Guerra in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
The usually-decisive grand jury process in this case stretched out over four weeks — including two of early voting, with the group considering the case weekly on Tuesdays. Valadez and seven city leaders testified to the events of the meeting. Tafolla and City Manager Leo Olivares were called back to testify a second time Tuesday.
Guerra himself couldn’t confirm the indictments, but denied the grand jury or its process was political.
Rather, he called the timeline part of the “onerous” process of considering prosecuting a case in court without any information from law enforcement.
“There’s no investigation conducted by anybody,” he said. “When we use the grand jury that way, they’re actually the police officer that’s investigating, taking statements.”
The district attorney said the process had been part of due diligence to avoid the appearance of politics in the situation.
“In the case of elected officials, I don’t believe in bushwhacking people — that is, indicting them without giving them the chance to explain,” he said. “If I indict public officials you think I’m not doing political damage to myself? I am.”
Previously, Guerra couldn’t specifically remember any other Open Meetings Act violations he has prosecuted during the more than three decades he has served as district attorney. But he said he thought there had been a couple.
“This one was so blatant you can’t just forget about it,” he said.