El Paso

Texas Rangers investigating possible violation of Texas Open Meetings Act

Texas Rangers investigate council

EL PASO, Texas - The Texas Rangers are investigating an alleged violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, according to a release from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

"The District Attorney's Office submitted a formal request to the Texas Rangers for an investigation regarding the alleged conduct violating the Texas Open Meetings Act. The Texas Rangers have begun a formal investigation and there are no further details available at this time," Lieutenant Elizabeth Carter, with the Texas Department of Public Safety in El Paso, said in a news release.

The City of El Paso's Ethics Review Commission met Wednesday night to discuss three different ethics complaints filed against Mayor Oscar Leeser and four City Council representatives.

The board took no action because the city attorney's office is asking for more time to investigate the complaints. The board will take us the issue again at its next meeting on Jan. 24.

If the complaints are brought before the ethics commission, five members will have to recuse themselves because they were appointed by the mayor or the city representatives in question.

"I was appointed by the mayor, and as a consequence I cannot sit on the commission that determines potential sanctions that against the mayor," said Stuart Schwartz, chairman of the board.

El Paso resident Jud Burgess filed the ethics complaint against Leeser and City Reps. Cortney Niland, Jim Tolbert, Peter Svarzbein and Lily Limon.

The complaint takes issue with their participation in a closed door meeting with some of those opposed to the original proposed Duranguito location of the Downtown arena.

In his complaint, Burgess stated, "I believe the Mayor and four City Council members named in this complaint intentionally conspired to avoid quorum by gaming The Texas Open Meetings Act and participating in a rolling quorum, which allowed them to conduct closed-door meetings without public notice."

According to the complaint,  Limon, Tolbert and Svarzbein met in the mayor's office privately before 10 a.m. Friday with local citizens. Tolbert left the closed door meeting just before Leeser and Niland arrived to continue the meeting with local citizens, the complaint stated.

The complaint also states, "City Council members and the Mayor cannot rotate members in the meeting over small periods of time to avoid meeting the number that constitutes a quorum for the purpose of avoiding giving public notice."

At about 10: 30 a.m., Svarzbein left the closed door meeting, the complaint stated. That was reportedly followed by the re-arrival of Tolbert at 10:45  a.m.

Burgess further stated in the complaint, "Outside parties, such as the citizens who participated in the meeting, are not allowed to attend executive sessions as in this case."

David Aviles-Rodriguez also filed an ethics complaint against the mayor and the same council reps. for the same reason.

"It's something that is secret government at work. You have half the council,and a tie breaking vote, so you have a majority. Are they just going to start getting together every breakfast and decide how to run this city and no one is going to hear about it.  Are we not going to know why they do it what emotions drive them.  Are they financially motivated?" said Aviles-Rodriguez.

When asked about the possibility the Council violated the Open Meetings Act, Niland said, "No. No. No. No. We never were at a position where it was a quorum and we are always very cognizant of the open meetings act. The mayor and I were not participants in the first meeting and we were at the metropolitan organization meeting. We would never jeopardize putting anyone in that situation."

Burgess told ABC-7 penalties range from a $500 fine to six months in jail for those guilty of violating the Open Meetings Act in Texas. "The penalty I'm seeking is just to put them out in the public eye so people can see how they are going about without the public's involvement and without the public's approval," Burgess said.

A second ethics complaint against the mayor and the same representatives by Aviles-Rodriguez states, "The five city representatives acted through loopholes to circumvent the Texas Open Meetings law. They met without notice to the public in the mayor's office. A member of this group stood outside to circumvent law violation."

County Commissioner Vince Perez told ABC-7 he recently sent a letter District Attorney Jaime Esparza urging him to launch an investigation into the possible violations of the Texas Open Meeting Act.

In the letter dated January 5, 2017, Perez urges the district attorney to "investigate recent possible violations and actively pursue any enforcement issues deemed appropriate."

Perez goes on to state, "I also strongly believe such action by your office will help mitigate violations in the future."

Perez was allegedly informed that the El Paso County Historical Commission, an entity subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act, "conducted a vote via email, which constitutes an unlawful closed session that was inaccessible to the public."
Perez told ABC-7 "whenever there are allegations of wrong doing, if there's an investigation that takes place, and if somebody is cleared of wrong doing, then I think there's a value to that because it at least builds the public's trust that someone is looking into theses matters."

Perez is married to El Paso City Representative Claudia Ordaz, one of the representatives not accused of violating the open meetings act.


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