The City’s Ethics Review Commission reconvened on Thursday to continue deliberating the ethics complaint filed by city resident George Zavala against Cassandra Hernandez. The Commission opened the meeting with public comment. Unlike yesterday’s public comment, Hernandez had several supporters speaking in support of her. Two of the speakers supporting Hernandez were her sister and her mother. Hernandez’ sister spoke via video. Hernandez’ mother spoke at the hearing. She said that her daughter has “strong values and ethics.” The other speaker supporting Hernandez was Lucio Glen, who worked for Hernandez during her first term at the city council. Glen told the Commissioners that he “witnessed her [Hernandez] as a leader of high moral character.” Several other speakers related their experiences with Hernandez’ work in her district. Others urged the Commissioners to find that Hernandez did not violate the ethics ordinance.
After the public speaking period, the Commissioners continued with questioning Hernandez and Zavala.
Commissioner Casey Mangan asked Hernandez if she could explain why there was a charge on her city-issued fuel card on September 21st, and 23rd in El Paso, when she and her husband were in Vancouver. Hernandez responded that she has not had the opportunity to reconcile the two charges on the card. Hernandez explained that she was not given the opportunity to address any “unauthorized” use of the card. Hernandez added that it “has been the policy” of the city to allow for the reimbursement of “unauthorized” usage of the fuel card.
Hernandez continued that “in the past, I have left my personal vehicles at her house,” and “it was likely that a close friend fueled up her car” while she was out of town “for work related use.”
After the questioning of Hernandez, the Commission moved on to questioning the city auditor.
Edmundo Calderon Questioned By Commissioners
The next witness was Edmundo Calderon, the City Auditor. Calderon brought his personal attorney, Laura Enriquez, to the hearing. Commissioner Antonio Williams asked Calderon about the city’s fuel card policy. The next Commissioner, David Kern, asked Calderon if there is a city policy to allow a city representative to correct unauthorized purchases. Calderon said it was policy to allow for corrections for unauthorized charges. However, according to Calderon, Hernandez was not given an opportunity to rectify the unauthorized charges on the fuel card.
The next Commissioner, Ryan Woodcraft, asked Calderon if Hernandez was on the City’s Financial Oversight & Audit Committee (FOAC) when the audit was authorized. The testimony revealed that the original authority for the audit did not include an audit of the fuel cards. It was Calderon who added the fuel cards to the scope of the audit after receiving a tip through the city’s hotline that a city representative was using the fuel cards to fuel campaign volunteers’ cars. Hernandez was not the city representative who was alleged to have used her fuel card for her volunteers.
When the auditor notified the FOAC that he had expanded the audit to include the city-issued fuel cards, Hernandez was no longer a member of the FOAC.
Woodcraft asked Calderon why his department did not follow up with Hernandez about the use of her fuel card. Calderon responded that once the police investigators indicated they were conducting a criminal investigation they had a duty to not meet with Hernandez or another official under investigation so as not to interfere with the police investigation.
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The next Commissioner to question Calderon was Richarda Momsen. Momsen, the former City Clerk, asked Calderon to confirm that he did not follow up with Hernandez because of the police investigation into the use of the fuel cards identified by the audit. Calderon agreed.
George Zavala, who filed the complaint against Hernandez, emphasized the lack of protecting the fuel card and its pin number through his questioning of Calderon. Calderon agreed with Zavala that it is “common practice” not to share the PIN number even with spouses and that the card should not have been shared with anyone else.
Hernandez’ attorney, Felix Valenzuela, was the last individual to question Calderon. Her attorney focused his questioning on Calderon’s audit report. Through his questioning, Hernandez’ attorney attempted to demonstrate that the audit was not really an audit, but rather a report and that the auditor did not make a finding that Hernandez had violated the city’s ethics ordinance.
The next witness after Calderon was Hernandez’ husband, Jeremy Jordan.
Jeremy Jordan Testifies
The next witness called by the Commission was Jeremy Jordan, Hernandez’ husband. They were married in November. Under questioning by Williams, Jordan testified that he used Courtney Niland’s fuel card to fuel her personal vehicle. Niland was the city representative from 2011 to 2017 and Jordan was her chief of staff.
Jordan testified that he used Hernandez’ fuel card to fuel her car. Asked if Jordan ever used Hernandez’ card for personal use, Jordan replied that he had not used it for personal use.
Commissioner David Kern asked Jordan about the evidence submitted by Hernandez. Kern focused on the charges presented by Hernandez where Jordan’s personal credit card was used for fueling their cars.
The next Commissioner to question Jordan was Marco Covarrubias. Covarrubias asked why Jordan had used a personal credit card to pay for fuel in their rental car in Vancouver if they were on official business. Jordan explained that his wife was working while the trip for himself was “recreational” in nature. That is why he paid for the gasoline in the rental car – out of his personal funds.
After the questioning was completed, the Commission allowed Hernandez and Zavala to offer closing statements.
The Closing Statements
George Zavala said during his closing statement that his complaint is not about how Hernandez does her job, but rather about her “unethical” use of the city-issued fuel card.
Hernandez argued in her closing statement that there is “clear and convincing evidence,” that she did not abuse her city-issued fuel card. She added that she did not receive “unwarranted benefits” and that “there were no communications” from city officials about her use of the fuel card. Any personal use of her fuel card that was personal in nature, was “incidental,” she said. Hernandez added that Calderon, the auditor, found no violations of any city policy. Hernandez also argued that the police also did not find any wrongdoing by her.
Hernandez also said that the audit was “perhaps political” in nature. She also said that once she became aware of the alleged violations, she paid it “back and more.” She wrote a check to the city for $6,700 to settle the issue soon after the audit was released.
During her closing statement, Hernandez asked the Commissioners to keep a “narrow focus” on the complaint while they deliberate the evidence.
After Hernandez completed her closing statement, Zavala, in his rebuttal, reminded the Commission that the issue was about Hernandez’ ethics as demonstrated by the evidence.
Once the closing arguments were completed, the Commissioners went into executive session to decide if a violation of the city’s ethics ordinance occurred. If the Commissioners determine a violation occurred, they then decide if they will issue a sanction against Hernandez. There are three sanctions the Commission can make with the added authority to recommend the removal of Hernandez should they deem her violation merits removal from office.
The Sanctions Available To The Ethics Review Commission
According to the city’s most recent ethics ordinance signed on February 16, 2021, if the Ethics Review Commission determined Hernandez violated any provision of the city’s ethics commission, the Commissioners can impose four sanctions. In order of severity, the first sanction is the issuance of a letter of notification. The letter of notification is issued if the Commission finds that the violation was “unintentional.” The second sanction is the issuance of a letter of admonition. A letter of admonition is issued to an individual who is found to have committed a “minor” violation, which may have been unintentional, but the circumstances of the activity were more substantial than a minor one.
The third sanction available to the Commissioners is the letter of reprimand. The letter of reprimand is issued for violations of the ethics ordinance that is “committed intentionally or through disregard of” the city’s ordinance. The fourth sanction the Commissioners can issue is a removal from office referral to city council who would vote on the matter. The fourth sanction is an additional remedy available to the Commissioners for “serious or repeat” violations that “was committed by” a city representative “intentionally or through culpable disregard” of the city’s ordinance. The referral to the city council is in addition to the issuance of a letter of reprimand.
Commissioners Found Hernandez Violated The City Ethics Ordinance
At about 11:00, the Commissioners returned from executive session. Commissioner Yetter made the motion that the evidence was clear that Hernandez had a “cavalier disregard” with the city-issued fuel card and that it was “not merely incidental.” The discussion centered around Hernandez’ admission that the city-issued fuel card was left unsecured and accessible to unknown individuals. Commissioner Williams argued that the “unauthorized use of the card” proved Hernandez was “improperly securing improper benefits.” Williams said that Hernandez’ inability to state where or who gave her card when she replaced it every time it was misplaced demonstrates that Hernandez was not forthcoming to the Commission.
Commissioner Momsen said “just because the City was a sleep at the wheel, does not justify” the use of city resources for “personal gain.”
The Commissioners unanimously found that there was “clear and convincing evidence” showing that both charges were sustained. After finding that both of Zavala’s charges were sustained, the Commissioners began discussing the sanctions.
Commissioner Bray made the motion to recommend a letter of reprimand be issued to Hernandez. Commissioner Momsen seconded the motion. As explained by Commissioner Bray, the sanction was necessary because of Hernandez “disregard of” the ordinance.
The letter of reprimand is the third most severe sanction available to the Commission.
After the finding by the Commission, George Zavala issued the following statement via Facebook: “The purpose of me filing the ethics complaint was to uphold our elected officials to the highest ethical standards and make them accountable for their actions for which WE did!”
Two ethics complaints related to the fuel card audit remain open. The complaint against Alexsandra Annello has been forwarded to the Ethics Commission. No word yet on the status of the complaint filed against Brian Kennedy. Both of the pending complaints were filed by Deborah Paz.