in Houston, Texas
el paso times
Former El Paso ISD superintendent Lorenzo Garcia sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison, ordered to pay $236K in restitution, fines
Friday, Oct 05, 2012, 04:00PM CST
By Curt Olson
scales of justice

Former El Paso Independent School District Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for his role in a scheme to manipulate test scores.

Garcia, who pleaded guilty in June to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, will also pay $180,000 in restitution and a $56,500 fine, the El Paso Times reports. Garcia steered a $450,000 district contract to a mistress and rigged the testing system to boost scores and meet federal accountability students.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, who made the first accusations in 2010 that ultimately proved true, called on Senior U.S. District Court Judge David Briones to give Garcia a harsher sentence.

Garcia’s sentencing ends only a part of the sordid story that has plagued EPISD. The district, under the guidance of trustees who have failed to lead, is under state oversight.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of scales of justice by flickr user mikecogh, used via a Creative Commons license.

Hundreds of El Paso public corruption documents remain under seal
Monday, Sep 17, 2012, 09:44AM CST
By Mike Cronin
files

Reams of court documents remain sealed in an El Paso public corruption case --- including two documents that the judge in December said should be unsealed after 2011, the El Paso Times reports.

First Amendment experts have said (Judge Frank Montalvo) has been too quick to seal some of the hundreds of documents and proceedings that have been hidden from the public in El Paso's raft of corruption cases, which stretch back to 2004.

Under the law, court documents and proceedings are supposed to be open unless a judge determines there is a strong government interest in sealing them.

Among the docs that are public is the Dec. 9 transcript of former County Judge Dolores Briones’ guilty plea, in which she admits accepting $24,000 in bribes in exchange for supporting a $600,000 federal contract. The court unsealed the transcript this week, even as Montalvo ordered that any other motions using the plea be sealed. The plea agreement itself and the factual basis for the plea both remain sealed, the Times reports.

Montalvo previously stated in court that he sealed many of the documents at the request of federal prosecutors, based on their continuing investigations.

Charles Daughtry, a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told the El Paso Times that he could not “see any legitimate reason” to keep any of the remaining Briones documents sealed. Those documents already are available to the defendant and the statute of limitations has expired.

The El Paso Times estimated in July that 268 orders, documents and motions remained under seal.

Nine people, including six public officials, have pleaded guilty to corruption charges resulting from a 2010 indictment that states $100 million in government health-insurance business was illegally steered to Access HealthSource. The investigation stretches back for years and has managed to touch virtually every corner of government in El Paso.

Wiretaps of three men connected to businessman Bob Jones, sentenced to 10 years and fined $68 million for his role in the Access bribery scheme, revealed that the scandal penetrated El Paso County government and its courts; local police; and the El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro school districts. Prosecutors have presented evidence of bribes accepted by elected county officials and school board members.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of files by flickr user T a k, used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso Times alerts public to potential waste -- $3.7 million of it for building owned by El Paso Times
Friday, Sep 14, 2012, 03:26PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
elapse

Lest you doubt the indispensable role of the press as guardian of the commonweal, we offer the El Paso Times warning that the city was on the verge of paying $3.7 million too much for a downtown building.

And lest you doubt why the entire newspaper business is in deep financial trouble, we point out that the building in question houses the El Paso Times.

The Times compounded its scoop by reporting today the City Council decided to wait just a bit before moving to acquire its building for $14 million.

The city had the 83,000-square-foot building and a parking lot across the 300 N. Campbell St. location appraised for $10.3 million in August. The appraisal report had not been read by the City Council and brokers for TVO North America, the real estate company handling the deal, until Thursday after being requested by a reporter for the Times.

In a bit of an understatement, City Manager Joyce Wilson told the Times there had been “some confusion” and that the appraisal figure had gotten all balled up with other numbers, including the $14 million offer.

The confusion may have something to do with the speed with which civic dominoes began toppling after the City Council offered $50 million in taxpayer money to build a stadium downtown as a lure for to a Triple A baseball franchise.

The plan, the secrecy surrounding elements of it and the lack of public input is quite unpopular with certain constituencies in El Paso, including the hotel industry.

While the negotiations to bring the Tucson Padres east continued, the Council voted to raze City Hall to make room for the ballpark and prepares to vote this Tuesday on an $83 million bond package pay for everything, including the Times building.

Where to put all those displaced city employees cannot be determined until the Council decides on what it is willing to ask taxpayers to pay for the Times building. "There is no way we would ever consider buying anything for $4 million more than its appraisal," City Rep. Michiel Noe told the Times. “If it is $4 million more, then hell no.”

The story does not say whether or not the Times is willing to sell its building for $3.7 million less than it thought would be offered.

Nor does the story say whether a desk will be made available in the Times’ new headquarters for the reporter who made the much lower offer possible.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of El Paso Times front page via Newseum.

Under state oversight following cheating scandal, El Paso ISD considers replacing interim superintendent
Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012, 05:14PM CST
By Mike Cronin
pencil

Less than a month after the Texas Education Agency appointed a monitor to oversee the El Paso’s public schools in the wake of a cheating scandal, district officials plan to replace the interim superintendent, the El Paso Times reported today.

Board members of the El Paso Independent School District would not explain why they sought to replace the current interim superintendent, Terri Jordan.

"It would not be appropriate for me to comment on this closed session agenda item before it is discussed fully by board members at tomorrow's meeting," board President Isela Castañon-Williams told the Times in a statement Monday.

The board was set to discuss Jordan’s replacement this afternoon.

Jordan served as the chief of staff to former El Paso public schools chief Lorenzo García prior to his arrest last year on public corruption charges.

García pleaded guilty in June to fraud and admitted directing a contract to a mistress and playing a role in the cheating scandal. García received tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses tied to student achievement - a measure that had been rigged by him and other district leaders.

The search for a new interim superintendent is taking place locally and statewide, said James "Jimmy" Vasquez, the executive director of Region 19 Education Service Center and the head of a task force created to help EPISD recover from the scandal.

"I have been calling the former superintendents of large school districts. We don't have anybody yet," Vasquez said of the candidate search.

Vasquez said the district is looking for a "temporary interim superintendent" to be followed by an interim superintendent and finally a full-time superintendent.

Trustees voted in June to extend Jordan's contract as interim superintendent for a year at her current annual salary of $180,000. Jordan’s contract permits her to return to the chief of staff position.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo by flickr user flakeparadigm, used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso City Council rejects open discussion about aspect of $50 million stadium plan; petition likely too late
Thursday, Aug 09, 2012, 05:00PM CST
By Curt Olson
baseball

Possibly inexplicably oblivious to the El Paso area public corruption scandals that have destroyed public trust, half of El Paso City Council quashed a move to bring a discussion into the open about the planned baseball stadium.

A group of citizens, Quality of Life Voters for Democracy, want to vote Nov. 6 on the $50 million Triple A minor league baseball stadium planned for downtown, but apparently submitted its petition too late, KVIA reported. The city has until Sept. 21 to verify signatures, but the issue must be finalized for the ballot by Aug. 20.

“We use this term all the time that we want to be transparent,” City Rep. Carl Robinson was reported saying. “If we really believe in the word being transparent we should be transparent to the people that have filed the petition and let them know whatever they’ve done is all for naught.”

Robinson’s comment came during an effort by council to waive its attorney-client privilege and discuss the stadium vote petition timeline in public, just as they had earlier in closed session. Council’s legally allowed to do that, but the move died, 5-4, with Mayor John Cook casting the deciding vote.

A Triple A minor league baseball team would replace the current Double A Diablos. Council also voted Tuesday to spend $22 million to relocate City Hall to two other downtown buildings, including the current home of the El Paso Times, so the stadium can be built where City Hall now sits. The city would pay for the new City Hall beginning in 2014 with certificates of obligation, which don’t require voter approval, the El Paso Times reported.

The city also will have voters determine the fate of $468 million in “quality-of-life” bonds for parks and other projects in November, and Cook’s concerned about public trust.

“When community trust is shaky, then they (voters) are liable to go vote no for everything,” said the mayor, in explaining the importance of the bond issue, the Times reported.

Ironically, that same public trust didn’t compel the mayor to level with citizens in the open.

If voters reject his prized quality-of-life bond issue in November, here’s hoping Cook points a finger at more than those who’ve been indicted or are already in jail.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of money by flickr user athrasher, used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso ISD trustees allowing task force to improve the district to conduct closed meeting
Tuesday, Aug 07, 2012, 02:16PM CST
By Curt Olson
elapse

The top brass at the El Paso Independent School District now seem befuddled by the lack of transparency that allowed a district cheating scandal to metastasize.

A task force created by trustees to improve the district’s governance will conduct its first meeting on Wednesday behind closed doors, the El Paso Times reports.

The panel was named after Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pleaded guilty in June to fraud in a massive cheating scandal and directing a contract to a mistress. More indictments are possible in the cheating sanctioned by Garcia. Also, five former EPISD principals have come forward to say they refused to go along with the scam that allowed Garcia and other district leaders to receive raises from the cheating. El Paso ISD trustees blamed the state’s open meetings laws for their failure to get information from the district’s internal auditor, which would have warned them of the cheating scandal much sooner.

The task force’s closed meeting was broken by the El Paso Times after a reporter informed the task force she would attend the first meeting. The paper reports that the closed meeting is allowed under the law because of the task force’s nature as an advisory body, but with the scandal that engulfs EPISD, it’s shocking trustees would allow it.

“I think absolutely if transparency has been a problem in the past this certainly isn’t going to bolster the public’s confidence in the entity to not keep things secret from them again,” Charles Daughtry, a Houston-based First Amendment attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, tells the Times.

Also against the closed-door meeting were El Paso Democratic state Reps. Marisa Marquez and Joe Pickett and Republican Dee Margo. Democratic State Sen. Jose Rodriguez told the paper he has no problem with closed-door meetings if the task force interviews people to find facts, but that governance issues must be held in the open.

“We are in a crisis and everyone needs to be involved,” said Marquez, who has passed legislation seeking more transparency of school districts. “There is no excuse for any more closed-door meetings at any level regarding EPISD. It has not been productive for them in the past, not in the recent past and it will not be productive for their future.”

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of El Paso via the El Paso Pubic Library.

El Paso schools trustees say open meetings laws prevent them from supervising internal auditor; lawyer says that interpretation flat wrong
Wednesday, Jul 11, 2012, 10:47AM CST
By Steve Miller
bus

The El Paso school board is truly becoming the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

In the midst of a massive audit, the board now claims the state’s open meetings law is hindering it from overseeing and sharing information with the district’s internal auditor.

In fact, it even wants its statehouse delegation to propose legislation that allows it to do so, even though an open records lawyer says there is nothing in existing law that prohibits the sharing of info between the board and internal auditors.

Bill Aleshire, an open government attorney in Austin, told the El Paso Times, "If they're suggesting the Open Meetings Act prevents their duty for overseeing the internal auditor, they're wrong about that. If the board president goes to the internal auditor and says, 'I want you to tell me what you're doing on every audit,' there's nothing illegal with that."

Whew.

This after the board was notified last month by the district’s lawyer that it legally erred by allowing internal auditors to report directly to the then-superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, who kept members in the dark regarding fiscal trouble in the district.

The district is trying to square up how its internal auditor was finding numerous problems yet the discoveries never made it to board members during the Garcia’s tenure. Among the problems were cheating and unexplained class promotions.

Garcia last month pleaded guilty to fraud. He is scheduled to be sentenced in September.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of school bus by flickr user torres21, used via a Creative Commons license.

Socorro City Council members join the madness of scandal-plagued El Paso area
Friday, Jul 06, 2012, 02:30PM CST
By Curt Olson
handcuffs

El Pasoans have no shortage of scandals involving public officials or public employees.

Take these three recent reports from the El Paso Times:

But not to be outdone, Socorro City Council members provided fireworks of their own on Thursday. Socorro is a city of about 30,000 just to the southeast of El Paso, and also shares a border with Mexico.

Earlier this week the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation of three council representatives and a city police sergeant regarding reimbursements they sought from the city.

The events of the week spilled into Thursday’s City Council meeting. For example, Times reporter Daniel Borunda chronicled how council members bickered even over mundane matters.

From the El Paso Times:

Bickering over even minor matters during a meeting on Thursday showed a clearly divided Socorro City Council that has three members under investigation by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

The investigation comes as the council is sharply split into two factions, which turned a regular government meeting into confrontation on almost everything.

Council members interrupted each other and spoke over each other, and accusations flew furiously during Thursday's meeting.

Whatever El Pasoans call this, it doesn't appear to be the best government for their money.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of handcuffs by flickr user .v1ctor., used via a Creative Commons license.

Fmr. El Paso County commissioner known as ‘Godfather’ to plead guilty in marijuana trafficking case
Friday, Jun 29, 2012, 01:02PM CST
By Mike Cronin
marijuana

A former El Paso County commissioner will plead guilty next month to charges in a marijuana trafficking case against him, federal court records show. Which ones are unknown.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents arrested Guillermo “Willie” Gandara Jr., 37, Gandara Jr. on Feb. 22, Adriana M. Chávez of the El Paso Times reported today:

Soon after Gandara's arrest, he resigned as county commissioner and withdrew as a candidate in the District 75 state representative race.

A DEA agent testified during an initial court appearance that agents secretly recorded conversations between Gandara and a confidential informant in which Gandara, whom agents said was nicknamed "God father," bragged about running a drug pipeline from El Paso to Oklahoma and Chicago.

A video recorded on Sept. 9, 2011, allegedly showed Gandara standing next to a truck while marijuana packages were transferred from one vehicle to another at Gandara's scrap yard.

Gandara is charged with conspiracy to possess a controlled substance with intent to distribute; possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute and aiding and abetting; and three counts of establishment of manufacturing operations.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of marijuana plant by flickr user North Cascades National Park, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes' political swipe on bridge a sign of formidable challenge?
Monday, May 14, 2012, 01:06PM CST
By Steve Miller
Juarez

With claims of a mass land grab by his opponent that would result in a glut of displaced locals, a fair political question could be posed: Is U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes getting desperate?

The Texas Democrat is facing his most formidable challenge since his 1996 election from primary challenger Beto O’Rourke, an upstart politico who married into the family of a prolific and well-heeled developer.

Reyes most recently told a gathering that O’Rourke favors an international bridge from El Paso to Juárez, Mexico, that would take the homes of up to 5,000 families.

O’Rourke countered that he had no such idea but also maintains a bridge is needed to remedy backups and bolster international trade.

The bridge has been discussed over the years although what drives the recent debate is partly politics from Reyes – he is seizing on an opportunity - and a report from the Texas Department of Transportation that supports a new bridge. Wait times to cross the border hit two hours at times, demand is growing and failure to address the need will impact the region’s economy, the June 2011 study points out.

Reyes, seeking his ninth term, sent out a mailer that claimed O’Rourke and supporters including his father-in-law, developer William Sanders, would “bulldoze entire neighborhoods” for a new international bridge.

The election dirt-tossing by Reyes angered Ted Houghton, chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, enough for Houghton to make a public comment, calling the displacing of families notion "ludicrous.

Houghton, an appointee of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has not donated to Reyes or O’Rourke.

O’Rourke pointed out that Reyes made his accusations at a community meeting called by the Ysleta school district superintendent. Reyes’ sister-in-law, Martha Reyes, is a trustee in the district. Rep. Reyes contributed $1,000 to Martha Reyes’ 2008 campaign fund, according to a report from Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. The timing and Yselta-Reyes connection is examined here.

The Reyes campaign did not return calls.

Reyes is among the incumbents targeted by the Houston-based super PAC Campaign for Primary Accountability, which has been turning primaries upside down with generous ad spends either supporting challengers or against entrenched powers like Reyes. CPA has received money from a group connected to William Sanders, O'Rourke's father-in-law.

Last week's historic ouster of veteran U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, by state treasurer Richard Mourdock was done with the support of the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, two D.C.-based groups that favor smaller government.

Silvestre ReyesSilvestre Reyes

The Reyes-O’Rourke District 16 contest is close; a recent poll published by the El Paso Times has it 39 to 32 percent in favor of Reyes. Early voting begins May 14 and runs through the 25. Election day is May 29.

The bridge issue in El Paso has been in discussion for years, with a separate bridge already under construction.

It bears similarity to an international bridge controversy in Michigan, where Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has been pressing to build a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. Snyder first tried a legislative end-around via Democrats in the statehouse, but was thwarted by his own party.

Anti-bridge factions in Detroit targeted property owners in affected sections of towns to gin up opposition by handing out fake eviction notices.

In the El Paso district, the two leading Democrats have been swatting at each other over a number of issues. Reyes at times has sounded like a big-government Republican when attacking O’Rourke in a campaign mailer for refusing to give tax breaks to businesses and suggesting he might be chummy with a Tea Party platform or two.

"Mr. O'Rourke would have sided with Tea Party extremists willing to shut down the government and put everything on the chopping block -- veterans' benefits, Social Security benefits, Medicare, Head Start, financial aid, etc.," the mailer claimed. Reyes’ campaign Web site uses a graphic in an attempt to link O’Rourke to conservative groups.

Beto O'RourkeBeto O'Rourke

O’Rourke said that while he is “certainly not a Republican,” he didn’t put himself in a narrow political category. He noted that he’s challenged the wisdom of the drug war, fought for the rights of lesbians, gays and transgendered people and supported a mass transit plan in El Paso.

“But I’m also someone who considers himself a fiscal conservative,” he said.

O’Rourke continues the primary contender favorite of using the past to project the future for his opponent.

His campaign site notes that he advocates term limits and stresses his Democratic Party bona fides. It points out that Reyes has been absent for a number of key votes.

Reyes, in fact, was missing from a Sunday event for various candidates in the region.

"Reyes has not faced a challenger like this in 16 years," said Gregory Rocha, an assistant professor of political science at University of Texas-El Paso. As a former city council member, O'Rourke's grasp of the issues is "tremendous."

Reyes' attempt to paint O'Rourke as a Republican is the biggest political slam one can deliver in the Democratic-heavy district, Rocha said, as the winner of the primary is assured to win the election. O'Rourke's bigger challenge, though, is voter turnout. He's the young candidate who needs strong support at the polls from the youth vote, which doesn't turn out in grew numbers.

"We've seen candidates do it before," Rocha said. "They'll come out."

Whether the numbers will send O'Rourke to Washington is a political guess at this point.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo "the view across the rio grande to juarez, mexico" by flickr user malingering, used via a Creative Commons license.

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