Recently, however I was pleasantly surprised with KTSM challenging a significant political assertion. Adrienne Alvarez of KTSM recently moderated a County Judge debate between incumbent Veronica Escobar and her challengers; Aliana Apodaca and Eddie Holguin. The expected and regular rhetoric emanated from all of the politicians. However, one thing caught my attention.
In the February 1, 2014 debate Adrienne Alvarez not only challenged Escobar’s assertion that taxes did not significantly go up during her tenure but also fact-checked Escobar and held Escobar accountable for her lies.
Let me break down the six lies told by Veronica Escobar during that debate.
The first lie: strong leadership.
According to Escobar’s introduction she has been in office “three years”. She added that when she came into office, the county had been in the “grips of corruption” for four years. I guess the numerous court cases demonstrating more than four years of corruption are plainly wrong, according to Escobar. Escobar then added that the county was “desperately in need of strong leadership…leadership that would reform an organization that did not have internal processes.”
You might remember my recent commentary about the local daily’s interview of Robert Pitman, the US Attorney for the Western District in regards to public corruption. You will note that on my blog; “The US Attorney and El Paso Public Corruption” I pointed out how Pitman clearly and unequivocally stated that there should be “structural changes in how things are done” at the county and added that there are things that need to be done to “increase transparency” at the county.
Robert Pitman, the man that should know the most about public corruption in El Paso, didn’t state that Veronica Escobar had implemented structural changes and increased transparency; in fact, he stated that they needed to be done.
Yet, Veronica Escobar wraps her political rhetoric around the notion that she reformed an organization “desperately in need of strong leadership”.
The US Attorney says the county is in need of transparency reform while the county judge incumbent states that she has embraced transparency and “reformed” the organization. Clearly one is not being truthful. The US Attorney is much more credible, in my opinion.
You should also note that when it came time for Veronica Escobar to step forth and show her “strong leadership” to reign in public corruption she, instead, chose to do the political expedient thing and keep Paul Shrode in a position dangerous not only to the taxpayers of the community but also to the welfare of the local judiciary.
The second lie: the tax increase.
Introducing the discussion on taxes, Alvarez presented previous interviews of the three candidates. In Veronica Escobar’s interview, Escobar stated that the county was “actually less indebted today than we were ten years ago, there is a one cent tax difference from when I first started to today”. KTSM’s Adrienne Alvarez pointed out that KTSM’s fact check found that when Escobar began as county judge the county’s tax rate was 36 cents per $100 valuation. Escobar interjected that it was “43 cents” in 2007. Alvarez pointed out that the county’s tax appraisers website showed it was 36 cents when Escobar started.
She asked Veronica Escobar to explain the discrepancy.
Escobar stated that she got “her numbers directly from the internal auditor and from the tax records that we produce each year”. She added that in 2007 when she took office the economic downturn affected tax revenues in El Paso. Escobar stated that in response her office “lowered the tax rate, made cuts through furloughs, through program eliminations [and] through other tax savings”. She added that her office soon realized that it was an “unsustainable course and so the last few years we have absolutely increased taxes.” She concluded that she was responsible for raising taxes by stating that “from 2007 to today it is a one and half cent tax increase.”
At the conclusion of the debate, Adrienne Alvarez clarified the “discrepancy” on the tax issue. Alvarez clarified that Veronica Escobar “admits that she was in error” and that the actual tax difference is not “one and half cents, but four cents”. So much for the “transparency” Escobar proudly proclaims.
The third lie: misrepresenting facts for her benefit.
Wrapping up the debate the candidates were given an opportunity to ask an opponent a question. Veronica Escobar chose to direct her question at Aliana Apodaca. Escobar stated that during Apodaca’s tenure at UMC she voted to increase taxes and she asked if Apodaca thought “it was a quality of leadership to sort of put it off on others” that the taxes were increased by the board of the community hospital. Apodaca responded, “I think it is a quality of leadership to speak the truth…and you and I have had this discussion before”. Aliana Apodaca pointed out that after seeing an auditor’s report that there was a $4 million surplus in the budget she discussed with Escobar why it was necessary to increase taxes to raise $4 million when the money was already there. To my knowledge, Veronica Escobar has yet to dispute Apodaca’s assertion therefore we can assume that Veronica Escobar was attempting to misrepresent what actually happened.
The question that the electorate should be asking is, if in fact there is $4 million “discovered” by UMC, and if so what happened to that money? Remember that UMC raised taxes to generate $4 million. Where are those monies today?
The fourth lie: allegations of corruption by a former employee.
During the debate Aliana Apodaca states that Veronica Escobar talks a lot about “corruption” and “transparency” but Apodaca does “not understand these gag orders that were issued…how does that equal transparency”? Escobar responded that it was not “a gag order”. That it was a “personnel issue” and that the judges in the purchasing board wanted to avoid litigation and have a mutual agreement for “a few years”.
Although Veronica Escobar stated that she was all for bringing the issue to the public and that she felt the county would prevail she nonetheless agreed to keep the information secret for the time being. Although I understand the notion of avoiding the expense of litigation and that an “overwhelming majority” of officials felt it was best to reach a mutual agreement the fact remains that the issue involves a previous official in the purchasing office of the county and that the fact is that the county has been involved in numerous public corruption scandals recently.
If Veronica Escobar truly believes in transparency then how is it that based on the facts I have outlined does she believe that she is being transparent with the electorate while keeping knowledge from the electorate? It is knowledge about allegations of public corruption.
The fifth lie: distorting the truth.
During her closing statement, Veronica Escobar stated that Aliana Apodaca “is very critical of taxes yet she voted to increase taxes at UMC”. Technically this is not an outright lie however it is a distortion of the truth. Escobar attempts to discredit Apodaca’s stance on taxes since Veronica Escobar must deflect attention away from her record on raising taxes. Escobar does this by innuendo conveniently omitting that Aliana Apodaca has had at least one conversation with Veronica Escobar about an excess of $4 million in UMC’s budget discovered after the tax increase was approved.
The sixth lie: accountability and transparency.
At her closing statement, Veronica Escobar stated that she has a “great” record of “increased accountability and transparency” in three years. Yet, as shown in this debate Veronica Escobar has yet to address what happened to the $4 million UMC discovered after the tax increase. On the same issue, Veronica Escobar distorted the $4 million tax vote by insinuating that Aliana Apodaca voted for the increase but omitting that Aliana Apodaca questioned Veronica Escobar about the $4 million “discovered” after the tax increase. As county judge, Veronica Escobar is in a position to “transparently” explain to the electorate not only how the $4 million was “found” but also how it was used or is going to be used now that taxes were increased by $4 million thus UMC has an additional $8 million to work with. Had Aliana Apodaca misstated the issue then Veronica Escobar would have pointed that out.
Therefore we have to assume that the account described by Apodaca is generally accurate.
So what happened to the $4 million that was “found”?
Also, the record is clear on Veronica Escobar’s position on “transparency” and “accountability”. When former medical examiner Paul Shrode was shown to be a liability to the taxpayers’ of the community by his record of lying Veronica Escobar responded by voting to keep him on the taxpayer’s payroll even though Shrode was not only a liability to the taxpayers but also highly detrimental to the integrity of the judicial system.
Shrode clearly needed to be dismissed from the county yet Veronica Escobar chose to do what was politically expedient for her. Even now, Veronica Escobar is keeping information she is aware about that could shed light on public corruption at the county because her leadership qualities are based on what others tell her to do rather than what “transparency” in government demands, especially in a county ripe with public corruption scandals.
Kudos to Adrienne Alvarez for making the effort to fact-check the important issue of taxes and clarifying the record for the electorate. Most other news outlets would have let Veronica Escobar make her statement without challenging her veracity in making it.
Veronica Escobar has stated that she wants to be reelected based on her record. Here are six examples of her integrity and her ability to create the necessary transparency in government the community of El Paso desperately needs.