Numerous Scandals Rock El Paso Area

A county commissioner was accused of distributing 110 pounds of marijuana, a tenured UTEP professor violated university policies, a suburban mayor dined at Hooters with city money, and mayoral candidate got a lap dance in his campaign office.
Mon February 27, 2012 8:34 pm
El Paso County Courthouse

It’s been a rough few years in El Paso. 

An FBI public corruption investigation of government officials, school district officials and private citizens–which has been going on since the summer of 2004 –has implicated dozens, including former county commissioner Betti Flores, former county judge Anthony Cobo, former county judge and state representative Luther Jones, and statewide political donor Bob Jones . (A December 2011 El Paso Times  story listed 36 people who have been charged, indicted or convicted.)

Then there was the attempted (and failed)  recall of  Mayor John Cook and two city representatives over the issue of health benefits for the partners of unmarried city employees. On February 17, Texas’s Eighth Court of Appeals found that recall proponents violated state election law regarding political contributions, which could lead to possible felony charges for recall organizer Tom Brown of Word of Life church.

But as Marty Schladen and Chris Roberts of the  Times wrote Sunday, the hits just keep on coming, including the indictment of five El Paso police officers and four potential scandals involving another county commissioner, a tenured University of Texas at El Paso assistant professor, a suburban mayor, and several government officials in nearby New  Mexico.

“Right now, it seems like a never-ending stream,” Mayor Cook told the Times. “You ask, ‘Who’s next?’” 

Here are the latest additions to the rogue’s gallery:

Player: Willia Gandara Jr., El Paso County Commissioner  
Charges: One count of conspiracy to possess marijuana with the intent to distribute; one count of possession with intent to distribute; and three counts of maintaining property for the distribution of marijuana.

County commissioner Gandara, who is a former Soccoro, Texas, mayor and is also currently running for the Texas legislature, is under investigation by the DEA, ICE, and the IRS. Gandara, known as “the Godfather,” is accused of conspiring to sell 110 pounds of marijuana. 

(Perhaps corruption runs in the family?  Willie Gandara Sr., also a former Soccoro mayor, was indicted in 2010 as part of the public corruption case and is still awaiting trial.)

As the Times’ Cindy Ramirez reported, police brought him in at the infamous Sierra Blanca checkpoint, though he was not in possession of any drugs at the time (they were specifically waiting for him there, as he was en route to San Antonio).  

“Gandara’s brother insisted the charges are politically motivated,”  reported Martina Valverde of KFOX.

“This has been going on too long. You can’t sleep because you don’t know who they want to pick on now in the family, or who’s next to be guilty on some issue,” Gary Gandara told her.

Player: S. Fernando Rodriguez, director of UTEP’s Criminal Justice Program 
Charges: Accused of violating university conflict-of-interest and “moonlighting” policies.

According to the Times Schladen, Rodriguez earned more than $1,000,000 while working for a private company on a publicly-funded contract that “is at the heart of the most recent public-corruption case,” including the bribery of former county Judge Dolores Briones  (who pled guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit theft or embezzlement of federal program funds and has not yet been sentenced).

Schladen’s story suggests Rodriguez tried to use his influence as a member of UTEP’s Institutional Review Board and failed to request permission from the school to spend more than eight hours a week on outside work. The university placed him on paid leave earlier this month. 

Player: Art Franco, Mayor of Anthony, Texas
Charges: KFOX reported that he is under investigation for misappopriation of funds and credit card abuse.

The Texas Rangers and the FBI executed a search warrant at Franco’s home on Valentine’s Day as part of an investigation that Franco himself told KVIA has been going on since April. 

“I have a lot of faith in the justice system,” Franco, who is in his tenth term, said at an Anthony town meeting that same night. “I mean, it’s about the fourth time in my career as mayor that (an investigation has happened) and thanks to God that everything came out, the truth came out, after the investigation and I hope it works out this time.”

Since then Franco has defended some of his specific expenditures to KFOX, including credit card charges from Hooters and the Sunland Park Race Track and Casino. Franco said he didn’t even have a beer at Hooters during what were legitimate business lunches, and did not gamble when dining at Sunland Park. 

Players: Daniel Salinas, Mayor Pro Tem of Sunland Park, New Mexico; Jaime Aguilera, city manager
Charges: Extortion, conspiracy to commit extortion, tampering with evidence and conspiracy to tamper with evidence.

You would think the title of the video below (“Mayoral candidate caught with stripper”) might tell all you need to know about this story, but you’d be wrong.

Sunland Park mayoral candidate Gerardo Hernandez did enjoy a lapdance in his office, but the whole thing now appears to be a setup by Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Salinas, who is also running for the job.

At the time of this KRQI report, Salinas denied that he was under investigation for extortion. He was wrong (or lying). As Diana Alba Soular of the Las Cruces Sun-News reported, video and photographs of Hernandez’s dalliance were found on Salinas’s computer before the footage ever became public.

Alba Soular also reported that two more suspects in the case had yet to be arrested as of early Monday morning because they live in Texas. Local officials were working with police in El Paso to locate them.

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