Former El Paso County Judge Dolores Briones took thousands of dollars in bribes because of her battle with breast cancer, according to a letter some El Pasoans received in their email recently.
"In the ensuing aftermath of aggressive treatment, she encountered fog and gaps in concentration and cognition, experiencing lapses in judgment and struggling to process information. And emotionally, at times she found herself in deep dark places brought on by depression," states the letter. It comes in an email from a woman named Yolie Flores. She did not return ABC-7's phone calls or emails.
"Please! I don't think it's going to affect you morally or ethically," County Commissioner Dan Haggerty said when he read the letter that appears to be written by one of Briones' friends in Los Angeles.
In it, the friend asked for funds for Briones to pay back to the government for accepting bribes.
"It's part of why people feel that they have no faith in government," County Judge Veronica Escobar said. "It's because of some bad actors and some corruptors who infect the organization and the community."
The feds said Briones cheated taxpayers of up to $30,000, when she accepted bribes to help LKG land a county contract to evaluate the Border Children's Mental Health Collaborative, a program that helped children get mental help without having to go to residential treatment centers. Briones in December pleaded guilty to embezzlement and conspiracy.
Federal document show Briones, in 2006, accepted twelve payments totaling $24,000 in exchange for her help steering more than half a million dollars in federal grant money to LKG enterprises.
Like the other defendants who've pleaded guilty, she has been ordered to report to a probation officer until she's sentenced, plus post bond, surrender her passport and not travel outside Texas or New Mexico without permission.
The letter states Briones at that time, faced financial insecurity because of her battle with cancer. "All of this contributed to planting doubt in her mind about her ability to provide for herself in the future. These were private, secret concerns. But essentially, she felt pretty beat up and intimidated. As a consequence, she made choices she may not have otherwise made under normal circumstances."
According to ABC-7 archives, Briones was cancer-free in 2005, about a year before she took money under the table.
Haggerty does not believe the illness led the former County Judge to fraud. "Dolores Briones was no foggier than any of the rest. She had her act together. No, I don't think any of that is true," Haggerty said.
Haggerty worked with Briones for eight years on Commissioners Court. He is now undergoing intensive chemotherapy himself for Stage 4 bladder cancer and is still actively serving on Commissioners Court. He said doctors have told him he has three to five years to live.
"I think it's a slap in the face to cancer victims," Haggerty said. "Personally she carried the whole cancer thing, I thought, a little longer than she probably should have and she just made such a production out of the whole thing. And I say that with tongue in cheek. Chemo affects everyone differently."
Escobar, who is still leading the charge, in a county lawsuit against LKG, to recover the lost money from that corrupt contract, also is not swayed by the letter.
"We live in a wonderful hard-working community and the families that live in our community work hard to pay their taxes and they pay their taxes in order to receive services in return. When people use government and the funds that our families give in taxes to line their pockets, I think that's probably the worst thing that you can do with your public service," Escobar said in an interview Tuesday.
The letter also asks for character reference letters and a consulting job with a pay cap so Briones could get the maximum unemployment benefits. It also states Briones 'championed' the cause for the collaberative and implies she took the bribes to keep the program running. "In her attempt and haste to secure the program and get it off the ground, she made poor choices. What she did was wrong. Had she been in a clearer state of mind with her former capability to thoroughly think things through, she would have made other decisions consistent with her life-long record of service. She takes full responsibility for this horrible mistake and suffers deep remorse for her part in this," the letter states.
Escobar said the collaborative had been running smoothly since 2002, with satisfactory evaluators. "The program was successful, underway, running fine. It was her (Briones) actions, along with the actions of others, some of whom have pleaded guilty to corruption, that actually put the grant in jeopardy -- put the program in jeopardy, put the county at risk."
Briones' attorney said he had no comment. The friend who reportedly wrote the letter, Yolie Flores, did not return calls or emails to ABC-7. Flores is listed as the Chief Executive Officer of Communities for Teaching Excellence, an education advocacy group based in Los Angeles.
"I think it's a real cheap shot to suggest that somehow because she had cancer, her entire way of looking at life, or her ability to judge right from wrong went out the window," said Haggerty.