Author: Katherine LeChat
Editor’s Note: Because of the nature of the author’s employment, the author has requested that their real name not be used. This is part 2 of a two part series.
The previous installment talked about the 13 federal and state indictments recently handed down in San Antonio. The indictments included current and former city council members, community college trustees, school board trustees, attorneys and contractors.
It is also worthy of mention that the Mayor of Albuquerque is in some trouble right now because of a practice he has engaged in.
It seems Mayor Martin Chavez has encouraged his supporters to contribute money to a Political Action Committee (PAC) that was formed for his benefit. His opponents referred to it as the “Mayor’s Slush Fund”. Money from the fund has been used, among other things, for travel expenses for his wife and children. Mayor Chavez recently announced that, although he believed it was perfectly legal to operate such a fund, he would ask that it be discontinued.
What has possible corruption in San Antonio and Albuquerque got to do with El Paso? Well, I recall something that former City Council member Barbara Perez once said on her radio talk show “Talk of the Town”. She said that if she hadn’t been an honest person, she could have made a lot of money while serving on our City Council. She said there were always various people, who were seeking city contracts, offering the City Council members money, gifts, trips, etc. I can still remember media accounts of the infamous fishing trip to Mexico where a couple of local architects, who had contracts with the county and Canutillo School District and who were seeking contracts with the city, had invited a City Council member, a County Commissioner and a Canutillo School Board trustee on the plane trip. If the plane hadn’t had trouble and had to make an emergency landing in the Mexican desert, we would never have known about the trip.
While the local officials denied any wrongdoing, said they were longtime friends of the architects and had paid the architects for the trip, the consensus was that it had the appearance of impropriety. The architects had been the winning bidder of the fishing trip at a local charity event, and undoubtedly, were planning to write it off as a charitable donation. It is highly unlikely that they would have invited the local officials to go on the trip and then have accepted money from them. Was it a coincidence that only after local media sources made a big deal of the fishing trip that the officials announced they had paid for the trip in cash (a check would have been traceable and would have indicated the date that the check was written)? Since El Paso seems to be lacking in the investigative reporter department, we can only wonder how often this goes on in El Paso.
How fair are El Paso’s bidding procedures regarding city contracts? Do the same firms get all the major contracts? If so, do they compete fairly for them or do they engage in courting local officials with gifts, trips and other rewards. We usually never hear about complaints unless a losing bidder comes forward and challenges the fairness of the process. Recently, a firm which had previously had a city contract to provide fingerprint analysis equipment to the El Paso Police Department, lost their contract to a new firm. The city staff had recommended that the contract be once again awarded to the previous contractor and had informed city council members that the previous contractor’s equipment appeared to be more reliable than the other firm’s. But, Police Chief Leon preferred the new firm and convinced enough city council members to vote for the new firm. The old firm took the city to court and won. The court concluded that the city had not complied with state bidding statutes and voided the new contract. Once again, we can only wonder how the new firm managed to get council approval when we know that the city staff had favored the old firm.
The City has an Ethics Ordinance, and city council members are not supposed to accept gifts over $50 in value and are supposed to fill out certain city forms when they do accept gifts. But, it appears that the ordinance is not really enforced. It is operated on the honor system. Several years ago when boxer Oscar DeLaHoya came to El Paso to fight in the Sun Bowl, all city council members were given free tickets by the boxing promoter. When local media sources found out about the gifts and made it public, certain city council members who had accepted the tickets (not all council members had accepted the gifts) announced that they would pay for the tickets. When the fishing trip to Mexico became public, the chairwoman of the Ethics Commission proclaimed that no one had filed a complaint about the incident, so they could not investigate. I remember wondering at the time why the Ethics Commission couldn’t initiate an investigation themselves without a complaint being filed especially since they were aware of the incident.
I wonder, too, about El Paso’s zoning laws. Are they similar to San Antonio’s zoning laws, the practices that D.A. Susan Reed said seemed to invite corruption? I do know that requests for zoning changes go before our city Planning Commission. But, even if the Planning Commission recommends against the zoning change, the City Council can override their recommendation and vote for the change. In San Antonio, a former city council member was indicted for soliciting money from zoning change applicants in order to secure enough city council votes to approve the requested zoning changes. Could that happen in El Paso?
It is good to know that the Feds and the District Attorneys of other cities are looking into corruption by local politicians and are finally taking action. Our own politicians should take note. The “business as usual” days at our City Hall may soon be over.