As readers explored in the case of the Hispanic Leadership Institute (HLI), it is not that El Paso Hispanics are not engaged enough to wield their population numbers to assert control over community issue, as was the case of Abraham Chavez, or that they are not willing to help other Latinos, like Fermin Dorado, but in who they choose as their leaders. Orlando Fonseca was criticized and lost his radio show for criticizing other Latinos like Alicia Chacon and Jose Rodriguez. Fonseca was right in that he should be allowed to criticize other Latinos. Fonseca was forced off the air for criticizing other Latinos. Yet, English radio political radio programs by Anglo and sometimes Hispanic hosts remained unscathed for years. Was it because Orlando Fonseca was threatening Alicia Chacon or was it because the other shows were not vulnerable to Hispanic influence or were not targeting the wrong people? This remains unknown.

There are two problems that do not allow El Paso’s Hispanics to collectively wield power. The first, as the HLI demonstrated, a new generation of Hispanic leaders are much more interested in self-gain then in collective Hispanic power. The second, and part of the first problem, is that El Paso’s Latinos choose Hispanic leaders on who they perceive to empower them individually instead of collectively. The city’s powerbrokers understand their minority place and thus encourage divisive Hispanic interlopers to weaken those they fear would sideline them by empowering the community’s Hispanics. Ramiro “Ram” Guzman demonstrates this reality.

In a 1990 El Paso Times article titled, Vibrant group of Hispanics moves into city, county politics, Ramiro Guzman was included in the list of Latinos “ready, willing and able to lead El Paso.” The others on the list included Moises Bujanda, Alicia Chacon, Ray Mancera, Charles Ponzio and Jose Rodriguez. Guzman and Ponzio were offered as potential candidates in future elections by political observers. [14]

In the 1990’s, according to Charles Ponzio, “Guzman and 11 other Hispanic businessmen put up to $1,000 each” to launch the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Meetings to organize the Hispanic chamber were held at Guzman’s beer distributor, according to Ponzio. [20] As readers will note in this article, Ponzio was working political power behind the scenes. In July 1990, the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce introduced its organizing board of directors. Among the ten organizing directors was Ramiro Guzman. The president was Charles Ponzio and Barbara Perez was the president-elect. [22] By late 1995, Ramiro Guzman was openly rumored to be considering running for Peggy Rosson’s state senate seat after she announced she was retiring. [14]

Guzman was being positioned as the Hispanic’s powerbroker while leaders like Alicia Chacon was quietly being pushed aside. As we previously explored, El Paso’s Hispanics did not start to wield political power until the 1990’s.

Guzman, in particular, was lauded as an Hispanic leader, especially by the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Guzman arrived in El Paso around 1983. Guzman was the president of Dickshire Coors in El Paso [9] and owner [12] at the time he was being positioned as the power broker for Latinos. In 1991, Guzman served on the Thomason Hospital, now the University Medical Center of El Paso (UMC), board. He was appointed by Orlando Fonseca. [10] Also in 1991, when Bill Tilney was elected mayor, he named Ramiro Guzman to his “transition team” of 18 members, most of whom supported his campaign for mayor. [18] Texas Commerce Bank added three new board members to its board in 1991. Two of them were Myrna Deckert and Ramiro Guzman. [24]

In 1992, Guzman was the campaign manager for Charles Ponzio who was running against five-term incumbent congressman Ron Coleman in the March 10 primary. [12]

By the late 2000’s, the reality of who Guzman truly was could no longer be hidden from public view. Although evidence existed that Guzman was not the leader Hispanics needed, political powerbrokers in El Paso kept pushing him as the leader. Supporters of Guzman were both Anglo and Hispanic. As Guzman was being propped up, Alicia Chacon was being marginalized by the political class. On January 5, 2009, Ramiro Guzman and Steven Sambrano pleaded guilty to public corruption in a bribery case. [1]

Readers should note that Guzman and Sambrano were tried by an agency outside of El Paso for crimes committed outside of El Paso. Evidence suggests that local prosecutors had no interest in prosecuting Guzman because he was needed to lead the Latinos. Although the crimes they were prosecuted for occurred outside of El Paso, as readers will see, the evidence of criminality was present but somehow the local Hispanic leadership either ignored it or were oblivious to it. It should be noted that self-serving politics is not unique to ethnicity but in the case of El Paso Hispanics, because of their overwhelming population numbers, it is one reason that the minority is allowed to select the public policy for the city. Hispanics in El Paso selectively choose leaders for selfish reasons. Ramiro Guzman is a case in point.

The General Service Commission Building

The General Service Commission oversees the State of Texas’ government purchasing. In 1995, the state awarded more than $5 billion in state contracts. [2] Ramiro Guzman was appointed to the commission in March 1993 by then-governor Ann Richards. [7] [17] Guzman was the first El Pasoan appointed to the commission. [7]

In 1996, the state legislator appropriated “up to $21.4 million” for the General Service Commission to buy an office building in El Paso. The proposed building was to consolidate 12 state agencies in one building. El Paso leaders wanted the building downtown “to help revitalize the central business district.” [3]

Rather than building a new building, state representative Pat Haggerty and his brother, county commissioner Dan Haggerty argued that instead of spending $21 million in a new building, the state should purchase the Landmark Building that was owned by the county. The Landmark Building used to be Hotel Dieu Hospital. Pat Haggerty argued that it would take $10 million to revitalize the building instead of building a new one. [3] But other necessities were in play, like downtown redevelopment.

According to then-State Senator Peggy Rosson, the person “who will have considerable influence on the state commission’s final selection” for the El Paso building was Ramiro Guzman, who was a commissioner at the time. [3]

The state agency settled on downtown El Paso for the state building and started construction in late 1998. The price tag was $21.4 million. [4] [6] It was built on the corner of Missouri and Kansas. The individual that brokered the deal with the state was Charles Ponzio, an HLI leader and a vocal proponent of Guzman. Ponzio told the El Paso Times in 1998 that the process to build the state building in downtown was “a long, bitter fight.” Ponzio added that it was Ramiro Guzman who was “the driving force in getting the building and deserves all the credit.” [4]

Although some El Paso leaders were pushing for the new state building to be built in downtown to help revitalize the area, some others were trying to convince the state to buy the Landmark Building owned by the county. Then county commissioner Dan Haggerty wanted the state to buy the Landmark Building from the county. His brother, state representative Pat Haggerty, was the loudest critic of building the new structure from scratch and the one that labeled the process corrupt. [23]

State officials explained in 1997 that they settled on the location of the building even though it cost $28 a square foot instead of the market value of $19 a square foot. Pat Haggerty told the El Paso Times in late 1997 that the site location for the building was a “dirty background” deal. Haggerty added that the site location had “nothing to do with anything other than who you know, and if you know the right guys, you get your price…taxpayers be damned.” [11] Ponzio brokered the land deal.

On August 25, 1997, a state audit suggested that the state paid too much for the land where the building was to be built. According to the audit’s findings, the requirements imposed by El Paso and other officials that the new construction be placed in downtown El Paso, along with “extensive negotiations prior to the final request for proposals” may have “impaired” the process to secure the land. [19] From the moment the new construction was announced, some El Paso officials demanded it be built in downtown El Paso, discarding the possibility of using the building owned by the county or other property in El Paso. Speculation of where it would be built led to landowners in the unofficial target area to begin negotiating pricing before the state asked for proposals. Among the individuals named as negotiating land for the building was Charles Ponzio.

Then state representative Pat Haggerty said the audit was “saying very politely, there’s graft and corruption going on over there.” Haggerty added, “there’s obviously was some hanky-panky going on” with the deal. [19]

The state building was inaugurated in March 2000 among much fanfare around it being an “economic motor” for downtown El Paso, according to then-mayor Carlos Ramirez. [6]

In 1999, after George Bush was elected governor, Charles Ponzio, in his weekly opinion piece in the El Paso Times, wrote about rumors that Bush would reappoint Guzman to the General Services Commission. Bush publicly distasted the reappointment of incumbents favoring instead on appointing new members. Nonetheless, Ponzio lauded the $22 million downtown state building as one of Guzman’s accomplishments, labelling the site selection for the building as a “war” among “powerful El Pasoans.” [20] Ponzio was advocating for the reappointment of Guzman through the El Paso Times. (see note below on the Ponzio)

El Paso Electric

Ramiro Guzman was not reappointed to the state commission by Bush. But Guzman was still being positioned as a political power broker.

In 2002, the El Paso Electric Company agreed to refund $14 million in profits that it made from an Enron deal it entered into in 2000 and 2001. [5] Enron declared bankruptcy on November 28, 2001. Many of its leaders, including its founder Kenneth Lay, were charged with accounting-related fraud. The Enron bankruptcy is one of the largest in American history.

El Paso Electric had been accused of manipulating the energy market. On the El Paso Electric board was Ramiro Guzman. Guzman told the newspaper that the electronic company determined it was best to settle than go to court on the allegations of misconduct by the company. Guzman was the voice that the paper of record used to convey the message the electric company wanted the public to understand. While Guzman was defending the electric company Enron deal, Ted Houghton told the El Paso Times that “there was a lot of greed there with Enron, and it looks like El Paso Electric got swept up in that greed.” Houghton was a board member from 1996 to 1998. [5]

But Guzman’s political activities eventually imploded. Guzman resigned from the El Paso Electric Board on April 4, 2008 after being indicted on bribery charges. [8] [16]

SamCorp

In March 2008, SamCorp, an El Paso-based company, was accused of bribing Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District trustees in return for a contract to build two elementary schools and a maintenance building in McAllen, Texas. Two individuals connected to SamCorp were charged, the company president Steven Sambrano and its lobbyist, Ramiro Guzman. According to court records, the bribery happened between 2000 and 2004. Sambrano and Samcorp had many lucrative government jobs in El Paso before the indictments were handed down. Among them was the downtown state building completed in 2000. [8] The timeline is important to note for readers. As noted before, Latinos began to assert political power in El Paso in the 1990’s. During that time, the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was born. The HLI was launched but by 2000 it was beginning to winddown. Hispanics were losing political clout and Guzman was a central figure during that time, including in a downtown sports arena that we will explore in the next edition.

On January 5, 2009, Sambrano and Guzman pleaded guilty to bribing school trustees in McAllen. [13] [25] Both admitted to “giving thousands of dollars worth of tickets to sporting events, hotel rooms and clothing to school board officials mostly in 2003 and 2004.” [13] In addition to hotel rooms, plane tickets and sports tickets, Guzman and Sambrano admitted to bribing school officials with “more than $100,000 in cash.” [25] According to the guilty pleas, it was Guzman who delivered the bribes. He was later reimbursed by Sambrano. [26] In January 2011, Ramiro Guzman was sentenced to four years of probation and eight months of house arrest. [27]

Before the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District scandal there was another government project that SamCorp worked on. It was the state building in downtown El Paso that Pat Haggerty alleged involved corruption and that a state audit suggested cost more than it should have cost the taxpayers. It was the downtown state building that Guzman is credited with. On June 30, 1998, the Texas General Services Commission announced that SamCorp was awarded the $12.9 million contract to build the state building. Guzman was a commissioner at the time the contract was awarded to SamCorp. SamCorp CEO, Sam Sambrano told the El Paso Times that the contract was “very important” for the company. [21]

It is important to note that like several other public corruption cases in El Paso at the time, many of which were related to the county, not one, including the case of SamCorp was investigated by County Attorney Jose Rodriguez or District Attorney Jaime Esparza. In the case of El Paso, it seems that the local Latino prosecutors have no interest in prosecuting public corruption in El Paso.

Over the last few articles, we have explored how El Paso’s Hispanics started wielding political power in the 1990’s. Readers have seen how a well-known Latino, Abraham Chavez was sidelined and only after intense pressure from Latino leaders was his issue somewhat resolved by El Paso bankers concerned about an “explosion in the community”. We also discussed how Anglo business owners encouraged a criminal investigation into Latino department heads that resulted in no charges because they were no longer receiving 100% of the city’s contracts. These two issues gave rise to an organized Hispanic organization intent on wielding political power, the Hispanic Leadership Institute. The HLI imploded as a new generation of Latinos, who were only interested in self-dealing, took it over.

The demise of the HLI demonstrates how fractured the El Paso Hispanic political base is. But the El Paso Hispanic population is significantly larger than the Anglo community that makes El Paso’s public policies and thus Latinos have sway over policy. However, Hispanic leaders in El Paso are few and many are looking after their own personal agendas. Ramiro Guzman is the example of how El Paso’s Latinos choose the wrong leadership to represent them on the political arena. Guzman was lauded by the business community, Anglo and Hispanic alike. Guzman clearly served his own interests over that of the El Paso community.

Guzman helped to establish the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and was a member of the HLI. Ramiro Guzman was also a major figurehead in a 1999 proposal by Hispanic leaders to build a sports arena in El Paso. Readers may be surprised to learn that it was Latinos pushing forth a sports arena, an arena that includes an important figure in today’s controversy over the proposed arena in the Duranguito footprint. In our next article we will explore that controversy in fuller detail.

A Note on Ponzio: Readers should note that Charles Ponzio was involved in the land sale for the state building with Ramiro Guzman, ran for office from El Paso and was involved in the founding of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Yet, by 1999, Ponzio had left El Paso to live in Austin. An important observation is how the El Paso Times labeled the Charles Ponzio regular opinion column, who was then residing in Austin and writing about El Paso politics. The newspaper’s blurb on Ponzio said, “Charles Ponzio is a former El Pasoan who ran for Congress in 1992 and now resides in Austin.” The question readers should ponder is why is a “former El Pasoan” who held no public office was writing a column for the local newspaper of record about politics in El Paso. The answer ties directly to who writes the narrative for El Paso’s public policy agenda?

Author’s note: The Samcorp case was largely lost among the many public corruption cases being prosecuted at the time in El Paso. The case caught my attention from a conversation I overheard during an event of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce among the chamber’s leaders. What caught my attention was the laissez-faire attitude towards the crime among the leadership. In particular was a flippant remark made by one chamber leader to a staff member, “Ese pobre Ramiro,” that poor Ramiro. It was as if bribery was common enough and that Guzman was dumb enough to have been caught. At the time I was an active member of the chamber.

Footnotes:

  1. FBI Press Release, “El Paso Businessmen Plead Guilty in Psja-Isd Bribery Scheme,” FBI, San Antonio Division, January 5, 2009.
  2. R. Michelle Breyer, “State sets goals for contracts to minorities, women,” Austin American-Statesman, September 13, 1995.
  3. Gary Scharrer, “State searches for space Downtown,” El Paso Times, April 26, 1996.
  4. Ken Flynn, “Construction begins on state office building,” El Paso Times, August 28, 1998.
  5. Vic Kolenc, “EP Electric would refund $14 million under deal,” El Paso Times, December 6, 2002.
  6. Daniel Perez, “Dignitaries praise new state building,” El Paso Times, March 3, 2000.
  7. Gary Scharrer, “As 1 El Pasoan leaves, another takes his place,” El Paso Times, April 19, 1999.
  8. Ramon Bracamontes, “SamCorp president lobbyist to stand trial,” El Paso Times, January 5, 2009.
  9. Ramon Renteria, “El Pasoans grumble at Austin but they’re Texans at heart,” El Paso Times, May 1, 1995.
  10. Benjamin Keck, “Commissioners to appoint new Thomason Hospital board members,” El Paso Times, February 23, 1991.
  11. Gary Scharrer, “Legislator has doubts about project,” El Paso Times, April 13, 1997.
  12. Gary Scharrer, “Is ethnicity a qualification for office?,” El Paso Times, February 16, 1992.
  13. Vic Kolenc, “Ethics in business, politics,” El Paso Times, January 11, 2009.
  14. Gary Scharrer, “Vibran group of Hispanics moves into city, county politics,” El Paso Times, October 7, 1990.
  15. Gary Scharrer, “Will he or won’t he run for Senate? Guzman on spot,” El Paso Times, September 17, 1995.
  16. Ramon Bracamontes, “Guzman steps down from company board,” El Paso Times, April 10, 2008.
  17. “Locals appointed to state advisory council,” El Paso Times, March 18, 1993.
  18. Denise Bezick, “New mayor names assistant, 18 people on transition team,” El Paso Times, May 9, 1991.
  19. Gary Scharrer, “Audit suggests state paid too much for land,” El Paso Times, August 26, 1997.
  20. Charles Ponzio, “Guzman effective on state commission,” El Paso Times, February 17, 1999.
  21. Gary Scharrer, “Sam Corp. wins bid to build 5-story state office building,” El Paso Times, July 1, 1998.
  22. Stephanie Townsend, “Hispanic chamber introduces leaders,” El Paso Times, July 18, 1990.
  23. Gary Scharrer, “El Paso pushes merits of Landmark Building,” El Paso Times, May 1, 1996.
  24. Christine Granados, “Bank adds 3 to board of directors,” El Paso Times, November 13, 1991.
  25. Jeremy Roebuck, “Two more plead guilty in PSJA bribery case,” The Brownsville Herald, January 6, 2009.
  26. Jeremy Roebuck, “Two more plead guilty to bribery,” The Monitor, January 6, 2009.
  27. Jared Taylor, “Ex-PSJA school leaders sentenced,” The Monitor, January 25, 2011.

Martin Paredes

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

One reply on “The Corruption Of Ramiro Guzman And Hispanic Political Power In El Paso”

  1. It’s kinda strange, I’ve met “Ram”, and he’s a really nice guy. I can see how people would feel bad for him, I don’t think the sin should define the sinner. Sadly, he blew a great opportunity, but that doesn’t make him any less nice.

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