Canutillo school board president accuses state rep of inappropriately promoting lobbyist

Canutillo ISD board president accuses state rep of inappropriately promoting lobbyist

EL PASO, Texas - A local school board president is accusing State Rep. Marisa Marquez of inappropriately promoting a lobbyist while she says the trustee is deflecting from the issue of school board transparency.

Canutillo Independent School District Board President Armando Rodriguez on Sunday night said Marquez had "raised red flags" when she suggested to him Canutillo ISD should hire lobbyist Mark Smith. 

Rodriguez made the allegations on live TV during ABC-7 Xtra where he appeared to discuss HB 343, a new law authored by Marquez that will require school board trustees to submit personal financial information beginning in January.

Rodriguez has been critical of the legislation, saying it's flawed.

Rodriguez claims Smith sent him a text message a day after the Canutillo ISD board last December voted to start the process of firing then Superintendent Damon Murphy. 

In the text message, Smith said he could "have Marisa run interference" and provide "legislative advocacy and month to month crisis management" to avoid the Canutillo ISD board from being taken over by the Texas Education Agency, according to Rodriguez. 

The text message said the lobbying services would cost the district $13,500 per month.

Rodriguez showed ABC-7 the text message from his phone but declined to forward it to the reporter.

Rodriguez said a few days after the text message, Marquez called him "to suggest the district hire Mark Smith."

"I was very standoffish when we got that call because it's heartbreaking because we're trying to do what's right for kids and at the same time we have some of our state legislative delegation playing politics with our kids," said Rodriguez.

Marquez denies ever contacting Rodriguez and suggesting hiring Smith.

"Instead of pointing fingers and deflecting on to other issues and other conversations with other parties that have nothing to do with the school district, he should be focused on what's important to the school district that he represents, the constituency he represents and how important this legislation is to restoring public trust," Marquez said in an interview Monday.

Rodriguez on Sunday night initially said he filed a complaint at the time Marquez allegedly called him, but would not disclose what agency he spoke with.

After ABC-7 called several local and federal agencies to confirm he had filed a complaint, Rodriguez said he filed a complaint with the FBI. Federal officials have not returned ABC-7's phone calls to confirm that as of publication of this article.

Marquez, upon listening to Rodriguez's allegations, said she called the Texas Attorney General to look into his concerns. 

"We took it upon ourselves and said 'hey our office is being accused of acting inappropriately and we need you to conduct a full investigation." Marquez said the A.G. is checking if the Texas Rangers would investigate those claims.

On Monday afternoon, Rodriguez said he had also called the Texas Rangers that day to check who else would investigate his claims.

"For me it was disheartening and made me realize that there is more to this than what is actually going on in the public." Rodriguez said.

Marquez said Rodriguez has a "responsibility to be honest."

"It's just an opportunity to deflect. Now whether or not he had a conversation with Mark Smith - I don't know. He possibly could have but that has nothing to do with this legislation. It has nothing to do with their responsibility as a board to be transparent. The relationship that Armando is alleging exists between a lobbyist and a legislator, that those conversations had any kind of influence on the type of legislation  that we passed - is irresponsible. It has nothing to do with the work we do as legislators, to suggest otherwise is a misuse of his (Rodriguez) position," Marquez said.

Rodriguez on Monday showed ABC-7 an email from Rick Armendariz, a lobbyist with the Forma Group, who Rodriguez said also contacted him shortly after the board moved to fire Murphy.

The email states:
"I had asked Rep. Marquez whether or not she knew if CISD had any level of lobby help this upcoming session, in light of TEA inquiries into EPISD.  She contacted me today and informed me that she spoke with you and that you do not nor did you have any immediate intention. If you think it is worth pursuing I can meet with you to go over some of the areas I think my firm could help with during this upcoming session."

Marquez said she did tell Armendariz Canutillo ISD did not have a lobbyist because she had previously asked Rodriguez who Canutillo ISD's government liaison or lobbyist would be during the legislative session. She maintains she did not promote or suggest Canutillo ISD should hire a specific lobbyist, including Armendariz.

Armendariz is part of the Forma Group, which according to Marquez's campaign finance reports, provide campaign consulting for Marquez.

The Forma Group occasionally hires Smith for lobbying work depending on specific cases but he is not part of the Forma Group nor has he ever provided campaign work or consulting for Marquez, according to Armendariz.

Monday night, Rodriguez sent out the following statement:

"During my appearance on News 7 Xtra, I stated that politics - and not the wellbeing of students and constituents - were behind many of the recent efforts and laws aimed at bringing transparency to school districts.  While I maintain that transparency and accountability are welcomed qualities in Canutillo, I stand by the comments I made Sunday night.  

It is time to stop playing politics and work to find real solutions to the problems plaguing our state. The children and constituents of my District deserve top-notch representation that truly works for the improvement of our communities."

The timeline below shows specifics about the conversations and correspondence dealing with the incident I mentioned on News 7 Xtra:

· Dec. 6, 2012: The CISD Board hears results of an audit alleging irregularities with the federal accountability system, and gives notice to its superintendent at the time that it would seek to suspend employment pending discharge.
· Dec. 8, 2012: Mark Smith of the Forma Group texts Armando Rodriguez stating that they can have state Rep. Marisa Marquez "run interference" before TEA takes punitive action against the District in exchange of a $13,500-a-month crisis management and legislative advocacy contract.
· Between Dec. 8 and Dec. 13, 2012: Rep. Marquez calls Armando Rodriguez to urge him to hire a lobbying firm.
· Dec. 13, 2013: Rick Armendariz, a partner in the Forma Group, emails Armando Rodriguez confirming that a phone call between Rep. Marquez and Rodriguez occurred.  The email asks for a meeting to discuss the services Forma can provide CISD.

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