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Author’s note: This is the second of a three-part series looking into how Jaime Esparza handled capital murder cases and why it may have led to a political whisper campaign against the current district attorney. In today’s issue we look at why Jaime Esparza was investigated by a grand jury.

Jaime Esparza: “They have implied that I’m a thief. I am not a thief.” Fort Worth Star Telegram, May 17, 1006.

Jaime Esparza served as the city’s top prosecutor for almost 28 years. His last day as the district attorney for El Paso was on December 31, 2020. As the community’s prosecutor, Esparza was usually the one delivering evidence to the local grand juries or overseeing assistant district attorneys who presented cases to them. It was his job to prosecute criminals in El Paso. But during his almost three decades as the district attorney, Jaime Esparza found himself on the other side of the legal process. In 2004, Esparza was one of several individuals being investigated by several Courts of Inquiry initiated by El Paso lawyers Theresa Caballero and Stuart Leeds. The Courts of Inquiry investigated public corruption within the district attorney’s office and the El Paso Police Department. In a future article, El Paso Politics will be publishing an in-depth report on the courts of inquiry. However, there was another time when Jaime Esparza was the target of a grand jury investigation investigating public corruption between Esparza and the El Paso Democratic Party.

Esparza was elected as El Paso’s District Attorney in 1993. He beat Steve Simmons in the 1992 primary with 70% of the vote and went on to be elected later that year. In his first three years in office, Esparza botched one capital murder case and put a teenager who was “factually innocent” in jail. On July 9, 2019, Esparza announced that he was not going to seek re-election. [1] Currently Esparza is working with the Mexican American Cultural Institute (MACI) [2] while waiting to see if the Joe Biden administration will appoint him the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas. [3] But in 1996, Jaime Esparza was forced to testify in front of a grand jury investigating him for public corruption.

The Unity-94 Investigation

In the early part of the 1990’s, Texas Democrats provided local political party officials with money to run phone banks to build grassroots support for the party. [5] There were three “unity” programs. They were Unity-90, Unity-92 and Unity-94. The Texas Democratic Party provided the money to promote Democratic candidates. In 1994, a state party check for $21,040 was transferred from the El Paso Democrats to an organization run by Jaime Esparza. The organization was called Unity-94. [4]

The money was transferred sometime in December 1994. [4]

An audit committee appointed in 1995 by the El Paso Democratic Party alleged that Jaime Esparza committed “theft, or money laundering” by transferring the party money to his organization. [4] [5] A state party official, Harold Cook, said on May 17, 1996 that “the process used by the El Paso Democratic Party to transfer $21,040 from the state group to a local political organization was unusual.” [5] The organization that received the $21,040 was run by Jaime Esparza.

According to Cook, he had sent the $21,040 to the El Paso Democratic Party “to run a general-election phone bank.” Cook added that the state money “left the El Paso Democratic Party almost as soon as it arrived and went to Unity 94-El Paso, which Esparza ran.” Cook said that he was “surprised that Unity-94-El Paso was a separate entity from the (El Paso Democratic) Party.” [5] Other local Democratic Party offices did not keep separate entities to manage state funds.

The then-local-party-chairman, Ken Sutherland, told the newspaper that Esparza told him “this is the way that you do it” before transferring the money to Esparza’ organization [5] The El Paso Democratic Party audit team asked Esparza to explain why the state money was transferred to the organization he ran. He refused. [7]

The Grand Jury Investigation

The El Paso Democratic Party appointed a special audit committee in 1995 to “examine the party’s finances.” In early May of 1996, the audit committee “turned over some of its findings” to the Grand Jury “alleging that both felonies and misdemeanor offenses occurred in the handling of party money.” [5]

Esparza met with the Grand Jury on May 16, 1996 to explain how the “money was handled.” [5] As the district attorney, it is Esparza or one of his assistants that normally present cases to grand juries. But because Esparza was the subject of the investigation, the Texas Attorney General was handling the presentation to the grand jury. [5]

Rebecca Baca, the chairwoman of the audit committee, said that she did not believe allowing Esparza to go before the grand jury investigating him before the audit team was allowed to make their presentation was fair. Baca added that the audit team should have been allowed to “go first,” because they were “the ones that asked” for the investigation. [10]

Defendants in grand jury investigations normally do not testify in grand jury investigations. In this case, not only did Jaime Esparza “explain” why the money was transferred to his organization to the grand jury, but he was allowed to “explain” it before the audit committee was allowed to present its case. This “upset members” of the audit committee. [5]

Under state law, Esparza needed “approval from the assistant state attorney general handling the case.” According to the newspaper’s account, “audit members said they felt considerable unease because one of Esparza’s close friends is George Rodriguez, a special assistant state attorney general in El Paso.” The spokesperson for the Texas Attorney General’s office refused to address why Esparza was allowed to “explain” the transfer of the money “because grand jury proceedings are secret.” [5]

It wasn’t until May 22, 1996 that the five audit committee members were allowed to present their evidence to the grand jury. [8] This was six days after Jaime Esparza was allowed to “explain” the transfer of the money to the grand jury [5] and a week before the grand jury ultimately dropped the case. [4]

Audit committee member Becky Baca told the El Paso Times that she believed that the committee had “enough proof” to prove that “fraud was committed.” [8]

Records showed that Esparza’s organization “bounced 10 Unity 94 checks…worth $2,786.57” [8] before the local party transferred the state money to him. It was Jaime Esparza who signed the checks that bounced. The audit committee also alleged that Esparza’s organization did not account for political expenditures to the Texas Ethics Commission as required. The El Paso Times “found less than $600 of Unity 94 expenses not reported” to the Texas Ethics Commission.

Grand Jury Drops The Investigation

On May 29, 1996, the Grand Jury investigating Jaime Esparza dropped the case “citing insufficient evidence” to continue it. [4] This was 13 days after Jaime Esparza “explained” why the money was transferred. Baca, the chairwoman of the audit committee, told the El Paso Times that she was “stunned” that the grand jury cleared Esparza. Baca asked how was it that the Grand Jury ended the investigation because she “wasn’t even finished presenting” all her evidence. Baca said she had been asked to return to the grand jury. [9] She never did.

Grand juries are frequently criticized for “perfectly willing to ‘indict a ham sandwich’ if asked to do so” by prosecutors.” Among the concerns with grand juries is that they “abuse” their authority “by harassing unpopular individuals and groups” as directed by the sitting district attorney. “The decision of which evidence to present” to any grand jury “is in the prosecutor’s hands.” A “suspect has no right to testify” before a grand jury. [6] Inversely, because the prosecutor is in the driver’s seat when it comes to grand juries, it can be argued that Jaime Esparza had some sway over how the grand jury looked at the evidence that was provided to it. Additionally, Esparza was allowed to “explain” his actions to the grand jury investigating him before the audit committee had presented its evidence, even though a suspect has no right to present evidence in their defense. [6]

How the grand jury investigating Jaime Esparza closed the case is questionable at best when the fact that as the city’s district attorney, Esparza met with the grand jury before it was presented with evidence from the complainants. Most targets of grand juries are not allowed to present evidence to grand juries, but Esparza was allowed to do so.

Juries look at evidence, in some cases use most of it to reach a conclusion of guilt based on the preponderance of what the evidence suggests. Within Esparza’s first years in office, he botched a capital murder case of the pizza delivery man by using an unreliable witness, put a teenager that was “factually innocent” in jail for almost 20 years and was investigated for misappropriating state money. These examples are for the first three-to-four years that Esparza was in office.

There are several other issues surrounding Esparza’s tenure in office, including serious allegations of basic rights such as the right to have an impartial magistrate, to colluding with the police before filing criminal charges to supporting a medical examiner for years that was proven to have lied. It is this, the lying medical examiner, that becomes an important element. In our next article we will show readers how crucial proof of a prosecutor who alleges to have influence over the medical examiner came to light simply because El Paso now has a new prosecutor.

Footnotes:

  1. Aaron Martinez and Trish Long, “Here’s a look at ups and downs of El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza’s career,” El Paso Times, July 10, 2019.
  2. J. Kree, “Mexican American Cultural Institute future headquarters in El Paso bring modern look,” KFOX 14, January 27, 2022.
  3. “Outgoing El Paso DA seeks appointment as top federal prosecutor in west Texas,” KVIA, December 23, 2020.
  4. “El Paso district attorney cleared in campaign case,” Austin American Statesman, May 31, 1996.
  5. Gary Scharrer, “Demos’ money transfer ‘unusual’,” El Paso Times, May 17, 1996.
  6. Andrew D. Leipold, “Why Grand Juries Do not (an Cannot) Protect the Accused,” Cornell Law Review, Volume 80, Issue 2, January 2, 1995.
  7. Gary Scharrer, “Esparza, Demos wait for grand jury result,” El Paso Times, May 19, 1996.
  8. Gary Scharrer, “5 take fraud case to grand jury,” El Paso Times, May 23, 1996.
  9. Leticia Zamaripa, “Grand jury clears El Paso’s DA,” El Paso Times, May 30, 1996.
  10. “El Paso district attorney draws fire for transfer of party funds,” Fort Worth Star Telegram, May 17, 1996.

Martin Paredes

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