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The rising Hispanic political power players in the 1990’s created tensions between the Anglo and Hispanic communities. It is easy to dismiss the Anglo-Hispanic tensions as complaints by minorities in the community. However, the majority in El Paso are the Hispanics leaving the Anglos as the minority but in control of the power structure of El Paso. As we explored in our previous article, El Paso’s Hispanics began to assert themselves in the politics of the city around in 1991. This upset the Anglo minority as evidenced by the way the El Paso Times labeled the rising Hispanic political clout as “Hispanics shove way into power” in a 1991 article about Hispanic political empowerment.

The paper’s descriptor about how Hispanics were making their presence known in El Paso’s politics is an example of the ethnic tensions. The treatment of Abraham Chavez by the El Paso Symphony Orchestra Board is another example of how the Anglo-minority not only pushed back on a rising Hispanic power base but feared it as well. To better understand the tensions and what was driving them it is important to understand the controversy surrounding El Paso city engineer Fermin Dorado.

It is important that readers understand that empowered El Paso Hispanics are not Raymond Telles and Ray Salazar that most tend to use as examples of empowered Latinos in El Paso. Telles, who was mayor of El Paso between 1957 and 1961, and Ray Salazar, who was the second Hispanic mayor between 1977 and 1979, are not representative of Latino power in El Paso, but rather were an exception to the true power driving El Paso’s political scene.

El Paso Latinos did not truly begin to assert political power until around three decades ago, around 1991.

Telles and Salazar were outliers in the political structure of the city. As demonstrated in our previous articles and as shown in the Abraham Chavez article, ultimately the bankers made political decisions in the city. Chavez won a victory but was ultimately sidelined by the power brokers.

To better illustrate this dynamic, in this issue we will look to the Fermin Dorado saga in 1996.

Fermin Dorado began working as an engineer for El Paso in 1969. Dorado, who grew up in Segundo Barrio, [23] was appointed the city engineer in 1984. [29] He retired in 1996. [23]

In December 1996 [2], Larry Francis, the El Paso mayor at the time, announced a corruption investigation into the El Paso Engineering Department. The Francis administration named the two Hispanic leaders of the department, Fermin Dorado and Pablo Alvarado as targets of the investigation. [1] Dorado had retired in January that year. [3] Shortly after the public announcement by Francis and the then-police chief Russ Leach, a coalition of Hispanic groups got together to demand that the investigation include others involved in the city’s construction work. The Latino groups wanted the investigation to go back to the 1980’s. The groups argued that naming Alvarado and Dorado as targets was “unfair” to them, [4] while other instances of corruption existed.

Naming Alvarado and Dorado set the narrative that corruption was a Latino problem although at the time fewer Hispanics were department heads. The Latino coalition was framed as a response to the investigations into Alvarado and Dorado. However, the coalition told the El Paso Times editorial board that they had approached Larry Francis to complain about Francis’ hiring practices that did not include Latinos, prior to the announcement of the investigation into Alvarado and Dorado. [4] [13] The six Hispanic groups that comprised the Coalition for Justice and Equality, included Hispanic Leadership Institute (HLI), LULAC and the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in addition to three other Hispanic advocacy groups. The coalition was originally organized to address what they argued was an ethnic bias into the hiring practices of the Francis administration. After the announcement of the criminal investigation into Alvarez and Dorado, the group demanded that the naming of two Hispanics as the target of the investigation demonstrated Francis’ bias against Latinos. [5] Prior to the public announcement of the investigation, Larry Francis considered Fermin Dorado a “nemesis,” according to the El Paso Times. [6]

On June 25, 1999, three years after the investigation was announced, the FBI cleared both Alvarado and Dorado. [2] But the damage had been done by naming Alvarado and Dorado as corrupt, even when an extensive investigation by law enforcement found none.

The Zoo Project

Publicly, discontent with the city’s engineering department started around 1992 with the voter-approved zoo expansion project. According to an opinion piece by David Crowder in the El Paso Times in 1992, Fermin Dorado “hinted that his office might have gone a little easy on CMC owner Maria Fuentes, saying ‘I guess we wanted her to work out.’” [7] At issue was how Dorado was allowing projects to go to Latino-owned businesses. Crowder, in the opinion piece, wrote; “El Paso city government, I believe, has a scandal on its hands – the first in the 10 years I’ve been here.” [7]

Fermin Dorado had been put on notice that the El Paso Times was now focused on him.

The $3.8 million Zoo expansion project had been given to CMC Associates. The money for the zoo expansion came from the 1986 $5 million bond issue approved by El Paso voters. The project was not put out to bid by the city until 1991. Crowder wrote in the opinion piece that the contractor was under criminal investigation and that the city’s engineering department was “incompetent,” because it was showing “favoritism or worse,” suggesting that there was corruption in Dorado’s department. [7]

The narrative about corruption around Fermin Dorado was being set five years before Francis announced publicly that a far-reaching investigation was about to expose it all.

By mid-1993, the zoo expansion project remained controversial. On April 25, 1993, city council discussed declaring the contractor in default. Although the original contract had been awarded to CMC Associates, a new contractor, Nobles-Steiner, was now overseeing the project and was facing “cash-flow problems”. [8] CMC had defaulted on the zoo contract in 1992 and Nobles-Steiner had taken over the project. [9]

After city officials declared Nobles-Steiner in default on several city projects, the zoo contract was awarded to C.F. Jordan in 1993. [10] C.F Jordan was supposed to complete the zoo project by the winter of 1994, but the project was first delayed until April 1995, then June 1995 and then July 1995. [11]

As readers can observe, the zoo project required at least four contractors to complete. The zoo project was difficult for the contractors necessitating several of them to work on the project. Was this a case of incompetence or, worse, corruption? Crowder’s piece set the tone of corruption within a Latino-led department. But in the end, there were no allegations of corruption in the zoo project although the insinuation that Dorado was corrupt had been the narrative that was set.

On June 30, 1995, members of the Hispanic Leadership Institute (HLI) met with Larry Francis to discuss a community perception that Francis’ hiring practices at the city were detrimental to the city’s Hispanic population, especially among the city’s department heads. [4] [13] A year-and-half after Larry Francis was challenged to be more inclusive of Hispanics as department heads, a public announcement was made that a criminal investigation into two Latino department heads had been launched. As readers will see, the investigation was looking into several practices within the city but only two individuals were named, Fermin Dorado and Pablo Alvarado. Both were Latino, two of the few department heads at the city at the time. The El Paso Times had set the tone of corruption within the engineering department back in 1992. Now, two Latinos were being criminally investigated.

The Criminal Investigation

On December 26, 1996, then-mayor Larry Francis and police chief Russ Leach held a news conference where they revealed that a three-month criminal investigation had targeted the city’s engineering department. Leach announced that “the investigation involves criminal activity by city employees, former and present, as well as outside contractors involved in the bidding process and resulting in substandard construction.” [20]

The news conference made it clear, the city’s engineering department was corrupt.

But important context was missing in the announcement into the criminal investigation and the report that led to it. The KPMG Peat, Marwick report found problems in other departments, including the inspections, building services, traffic and transportation, and building services, among others including the engineering department. The fire marshal’s office was also singled out by the report. [22] The report also did not mention Dorado or Alvarado by name. [24]

In September 1996, when the report was first published, Francis told the El Paso Times that although the audit revealed a “perception” of gratuities being accepted by the city’s engineering department, the report “cited no direct evidence” of wrongdoing. Nonetheless, Francis said he would ask the police department to investigate the allegations. [24] Things changed in December of that year.

Although Francis nor Leach would name the individuals being investigated, the El Paso Times reported that “a law enforcement source close to the investigation” told the newspaper that the department’s former director, Fermin Dorado and former assistant director Pablo Alvarado were the prime suspects in the investigation. [20]

Leach assured the community that “the investigation likely will result in indictments sometime in the next three months.” [20]

The investigation was prompted by the September 1996 KPMG Peat, Marwick study. According to the El Paso Times, the study revealed that engineering staff were “accepting gratuities,” and “performing outside work for private clients using city equipment or the influence of their positions as city employees.” [20] In a “highly unusual move,” as described by the El Paso Times, it was the police chief, Russ Leach, that was heading the multi-agency investigation that included the FBI, the IRS and the district attorney’s office, among other law enforcement agencies. [20]

KPMG Peat Marwick had been hired by Francis “to find ways to improve several city departments, including several under the public works director.” When the city hired the consulting firm, the engineering department head position was vacant after Dorado had retired earlier in the year. According to South-West city representative Raymond Telles, Pablo Alvarado had five to three city council votes to be appointed the next department head, but that Francis did not want him. [6]

A few days after the city’s press conference, the El Paso Times reported that Russ Leach was reporting being “swamped” with telephone calls offering tips of city corruption. Leach told the newspaper that “this is not jobsite stuff, but major city projects involving millions and millions of dollars,” adding that it was “big stuff”. Nicolas Perez, the city engineer from 1954 to 1966 said the problems was not the engineering department, but rather it was the elected officials that “put undue pressure” on city employees for “pet projects or pet taxpayers.” [21]

In 1999 the FBI cleared both Alvarado and Dorado. [2]

Racist Investigation

In a 2015 oral interview, Fermin Dorado said that Larry Francis “was very redneck, very, very redneck.” Dorado added that he felt that Francis believed that “all the Mexicanos, if you were in a position of authority is because you were crooked.” [30] Dorado recounted had Francis had been trying to force him to retire months before Dorado retired.

On January 4, 1997, six Hispanic groups, who had banded together to form the Coalition for Justice and Equality, held a press conference alleging that the criminal investigation launched by Larry Francis was “motivated by race and politics”. The coalition was made up of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Hispanic Leadership Institute (HLI), the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the Mexican-American Bar Association (MABA) and the Mexican-American Engineering Society. [12]

Richard Martinez, president of the engineering society told the El Paso Times that the coalition didn’t care about “race, color or creed,” but wanted the investigation “to make sure it’s not only [Hispanic] individuals who are looked at.” Pablo Alvarado and Fermin Dorado were the only two individuals named in the far-reaching corruption investigation that included not only the engineering department but also the inspections and fire departments. [12]

Dorado has said that he wanted to standardize how city contracts were awarded. In doing so he argues that he angered the large Anglo-owned contractors who were used to getting the government jobs.

What Was Behind The Corruption Allegations?

Dorado says that when he started at the city, “most of the work was being done by large firms or mainly Anglo firms.” Dorado continues, “there were one or two Hispanic firms that actually got very little work from the city.” By the time he retired, Dorado said that “there were about 20 Hispanic firms doing work for the city.” [29]

To address the shortage of Hispanic firms on city work, Dorado “started a rating system” around 1981 to evaluate the firms bidding for city work. Dorado says that before he implemented the rating system, city work was allocated based on “the friendship type of business.” [29]

As the city engineer, Dorado established a process by which the city selected contractors for city work. Dorado told the newspaper that before he created the process, city work was given to contractors because “I know you, you know me and I do work.” [23] [29] Until Dorado made the changes, Hispanic-owned business were not getting much city work. Dorado told the El Paso Times in 2009 that “the big firms, of course, were angry” [23] [29] at him for the changes. Dorado adds that the contractors that were now competing with Hispanic businesses were “going around saying that you had to be Hispanic to get work from the city, which was not true.” Dorado added that the complaining firms “were still getting work; they were just not getting it all.” [23] The reason that the firms that were upset with Dorado were still getting city works was because Dorado says that he made it a point “that everyone would get work that was qualified” for the job. [29]

Dorado adds that the largely Anglo firms, “instead of getting 100 percent of the work, maybe they were only getting 20 percent,” after he instituted his rating system.[29]

When Fermin Dorado retired from the city, he says that he “was under a lot of pressure” from Larry Francis to retire. Dorado said that Francis made it clear that “he wanted me (Dorado) out.” [29] Dorado says that Francis targeted him with the corruption scandal “because all his buddies who were all these Anglo firms were complaining to him (Francis) that they weren’t getting work.” [29]

Dorado says that the Hispanic community rallied around him, pointing out that he did not “spend one cent on legal fees,” because the Hispanic lawyers came to his assistance. [29]

Russ Leach

Russ Leach became El Paso Police Chief in 1995. He left on July 17, 1998, to work for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) in California. [14] In 2000, after Leach had left El Paso in 1998, an email he sent to Jan Sumrall was released by the El Paso Times. In the June 15, 2000, email, Leach wrote to Sumrall, “as you know, I would love to comeback,” to the El Paso police department. Leach added, “let’s just keep all the rumors out there and we will see what we can stir up.” Leach concluded the email with, “I’m up for the fun and games and I know that you are!” [15]

The release of the email was precipitated by Carlos Ramirez, who became mayor after Larry Francis. Ramirez alleged “that former Mayor Larry Francis, Sumrall, former police Chief Russ Leach and others were less interested in solving problems than creating them for the city.” [16]

The emails demonstrates that Leach had no problem playing political games for personal benefit.

On March 22, 2010, Russ Leach was charged with driving under the influence after crashing his official automobile on February 8, 2010. According to the California Highway Patrol, Leach had consumed “at least” a dozen alcoholic beverages at home and at a strip joint, along with prescription medicine. After crashing his city-owned vehicle, Leach continued to drive “on his flattened tires”. Leach’s “intoxication level was such that he did not realize the extent of the damage and continued driving for an extended time until he was pulled over by police,” according to the investigators. Leach was the Riverside police chief at the time he was pulled over by Riverside police officers. The officers did not perform a field sobriety test on Leach when they pulled him over. Leach resigned a few days after the incident. [17]

Before the driving while intoxicated incident, Russ Leach was accused of striking his wife at a San Diego hotel. [18] Although the police recommended filing charges, the San Diego prosecutors declined to pursue the charges on December 29, 2004. [19]

The Lawsuits

In 1984, Fermin Dorado was one several plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit accusing the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) of voter rights violations. Mexican-American voters were being disfranchised because EPISD used at-large representation in run-off elections to elect board members instead of single-member districts. [26] At-large voting is a “widespread means of diluting the political effectiveness of a disfavored minority group.” [27] In essence, in the case of El Paso, the wealthy voters had the power to dictate school policy by electing members representative of their political agenda. In single-member districts, the representative for the district is more likely to be representative of the targeted voter that elects them.

Although Hispanics were the majority, in 1984 only 43% of the registered voters were Latinos. Because of this, the plaintiffs argued that the system in place “impermissibly dilutes the voting strength of Mexican-Americans.” [26] Readers should note that the school district attempted to prove there was no disfranchising of Hispanic voters by offering Dr. Wachtel as an expert statistician witness to counter the one offered by the plaintiffs, Dr. Brischetto.

The court pointed out that “Dr. Wachtel’s methodology is obviously inferior to that used by Dr. Brischetto and would have the tendency to produce distorted results…it is interesting to note, however, that even Dr. Wachtel’s analysis revealed significant voting polarization along ethnic lines.” Wachtel was a statistician with “no prior experience in analyzing elections results or studying voting polarization”. [26] He was offered by the school district and concluded that Hispanic-Americans were being disfranchised by the school district’s voting system.

The court ruled in favor of Dorado and the other plaintiffs.

On October 4, 2012, Fermin Dorado was another member of a group of plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the City of El Paso. The initial lawsuit was an attempt to force the city to accept a voter-initiated petition asking that construction of the Chihuahuas ballpark be stopped. [28]

An initiative petition requires two petitions to be voted upon by the city. After the first petition was rejected by the city and the second petition was being circulated to gather signatures, the City began the process to demolish the city hall building where the ballpark was going to be built. The plaintiffs alleged that this action by the City was a “conspiracy against Mexican/ Chicano/ Latin Americans.” Ultimately the court did not allow Dorado and his co-plaintiffs to stop the city from demolishing the old city hall because the initiative petition had not run its course. [28]

The Failure of Latino Leaders In El Paso

In 2001, Larry Francis ran unsuccessfully to regain his mayoral seat. He was forced into a runoff against Ray Caballero. One of the mayoral contenders who did not make the runoff was Belen Robles. Robles, the former president of LULAC received four percent of the vote. Robles asked her supporters to support Caballero’s candidacy. Two significant supporters agreed to work in Caballero’s campaign. They were Fermin Dorado and Pablo Alvarado. [25]

In 2015, Dorado was asked in an oral interview in 2015 if there were Hispanic leaders locally, at the state, or nationally that could challenge the status-quo. Dorado said there were no such leaders.

“About ten years ago we elected a Mexicano, a very very dynamic Mexicano, Caballero. And he could talk and talk, and I thought he is going to be the next Cisneros.” [31]

“And I said to myself we finally elected…this guy is going to be the mayor of El Paso as long as he wants to because he can be very dynamic.” [31]

“And he lost in the next election, bad.” [31]

“I think he (Caballero) surrounded himself with the wrong people to run the city.” [31]

“And then he helped our present leadership in El Paso, which I really don’t consider leadership, Escobar, these people, Escobar, that guy that’s there tambien, these people that I really don’t consider leaders because they, they’re taking care of themselves, politically, they don’t…not concerned about the pueblo, they don’t, and they call themselves a leader…they’re not a leader, they are looking out for themselves.” [31]

Fermin Dorado was referring to Veronica Escobar and Beto O’Rourke.

Dorado adds that individuals like him have “failed to develop leaders” in the community. [31] He meant Hispanic leaders.

In our next article we will look closely at the Hispanic Leadership Institute (HLI). It was an attempt to develop Latino leaders for El Paso. Ultimately it failed to develop leaders – for the same reason Dorado mentioned, local political players like Veronica Escobar, who, as Dorado argues, is an example of Hispanics “looking out for themselves.”

Footnotes:

  1. David Crowder, “Francis to run in 2001 for mayor,” El Paso Times, March 16, 2000.
  2. David Crowder, “City engineering inquiry clears 2,” El Paso Times, August 27, 1999.
  3. Editorial, “Cedillos Will bring stability to engineering department,” El Paso Times, May 14, 1997.
  4. David Crowder, “Coalition: Francis disregarded concerns,” El Paso Times, January 8, 1997.
  5. Sito Negron and Laura Smitherman, “Coalition accuses Mayor Francis of racial bias,” El Paso Times, January 5, 1997.
  6. Gordon Dickson, “Francis waits for report before hiring public works chief,” El Paso Times, September 16, 1996.
  7. David Crowder, “Zoo project raises questions for City Hall, taxpayers,” El Paso Times, May 15, 1992.
  8. Emily Jauregui, “Work on zoo too slow for City Council,” El Paso Times, April 25, 1993.
  9. Emily Jauregui, “Council decides today if zoo contractor is in default,” El Paso Times, May 18, 1993.
  10. Karla Bruner and Emily Jauregui, “Zoo has additions on track,” El Paso Times, January 14, 1995.
  11. Emily Jauregui, “Zoo has goal for exhibits,” El Paso Times, August 20, 1994.
  12. Laura Smitherman, “Group calls city investigation racist,” El Paso Times, January 4, 1997.
  13. Margarita Sanchez and Carmen E. Rodriguez letter to the editor on behalf of the Hispanic Leadership Institute, El Paso Times, January 18, 1997.
  14. David Crowder and Patrick C. McDonell, “Popular leader takes job in California,” El Paso Times, June 24, 1998.
  15. David Crowder, “Mayor releases ex-chief’s e-mail,” El Paso Times, September 21, 2000.
  16. David Crowder, “Mayor: Francis, others tried to create trouble,” El Paso Times, September 21, 2000.
  17. David Kelly, “Ex-police chief is charged with DUI,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2010.
  18. Lance Pugmire and Seema Mehta, “Riverside Chief Again Denies Fight,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2004.
  19. “Prosecutors claim little evidence on Police Chief,” Desert Dispatch, December 31, 2004.
  20. Sito Negron and David Crowder, “Francis, Leach allege corruption,” El Paso Times, December 27, 1996.
  21. David Crowder, “Corruption inquiry tips pour in,” El Paso Times, December 28, 1996.
  22. Sito Negron, “City Council to vote on reorganization plans Tuesday,” El Paso Times, January 5, 1997.
  23. Jenn Crawford, “As city engineer, Dorado has opened door for Hispanics,” El Paso Times, November 15, 2009.
  24. Gordon Dickason, “City gives gratuities allegations to police,” El Paso Times, September 17, 1996.
  25. David Crowder, “Robles puts support behind Caballero,” El Paso Times, May 9, 2001.
  26. Leopoldo Sierra, et al. v. The El Paso Independent School District, et al., United States District Court, Western District of Texas, El Paso (EP-83-CA-203), “Memorandum Opinion and Order,” April 3, 1984.
  27. Barbara L. Berry and Thomas R. Dye, “The Discriminatory Effects of At-Large Elections,” Florida State University Law Review, Volume 7, Issue 1, Winter 1979.
  28. Ray Salazar, et al. v. The City of El Paso, et al., United States District Court, Western Division of Texas, El Paso (EP-12-CV-00403-DCG), Memorandum Opinion and Order, November 29, 2012.
  29. Interview with Fermin Dorado by Homero Galicia, 2009, “Interview no. 1507,” Institute of Oral History, University of Texas at El Paso, January 23, 2009.
  30. “Surveilled by the FBI,” from Fermin Dorado oral history interview with Sandra Enriquez and David Robles, July 24, 2015, El Paso, TX, Civil Rights in Black and Brown interview Database.
  31. “Dorado/Most Effective Leader,” from Fermin Dorado oral history interview with Sandra Enriquez and David Robles, July 24, 2015, El Paso, TX, Civil Rights in Black and Brown interview Database.

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.

4 replies on “The Fermin Dorado Saga: Larry Francis Is “Very Redneck””

  1. I have known Larry Francis for years…He was a wonderful Mayor and is NOT a Redneck. On the other hand, my opinion is that Dorado & Alvarado were very anti Anglo (Racist) !!!

  2. The mordida is a long-standing tradition here and in Mexico. Talk to the DTEP property managers about their experiences with permits and the City. The FBI called El Paso a culture of corruption and it’s not just the city. Three County Judges in jail, a commissioner (Flores) on the take, Alliviane still in business after compromising half the government, EPISD Supt. in Club Fed, EPISD Supt (Cabrera) fired for conflict of interest…and that’s only what we know about!

    Only met Francis once or twice and he seemed like a nice guy. So did Ray and Joe and, for that matter, John. Like Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”

  3. Larry Francis did tremendous damage to our local economy and our City’s future as Mayor by telling Herb Kelleher to take a hike when Kelleher proposed to make the El Paso Airport a MAJOR Southwest Airlines hub. Francis ran him off!! So Kelleher went to Phoenix…the rest is history. No Sky Harbor for El Paso!

    Whatta Menso.

  4. The El Paso Times was sued in federal court for employment discrimination. The attorney for the plaintiffs was the late Enrique Moreno. Months before the trial the El Paso Times appointed Don Flores editor. This happened in the mid 90s. The story was buried in the Times B- section. The story was never reported on TV or radio. Effective ly the news was “shoved” out. Sadly the case was lost even with defendants admitting racist statements

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