Fmr. El Paso Commissioner avoids jail time

POSTED: 06:04 PM MST Dec 24, 2013    UPDATED: 07:01 PM MST Jan 16, 2014 
Betti Flores Fernando Parra sentenced
EL PASO, Texas -

More than six years after pleading guilty to defrauding taxpayers, former El Paso County Commissioner Betti Flores avoided prison time. Federal Judge Frank Montalvo sentenced her to five years probation and a $25,000 fine. 

Days before Friday's sentencing hearing, Flores' attorney filed a request for the judge to be more lenient and give her probation instead of jail time because she didn't have a criminal background.

"I thank you for the opportunity to publicly apologize to the citizens of El Paso who voted for me and wanted a fair and honest commissioners, for not giving them what they deserved," Flores said to Montalvo prior to the sentencing. "I humbly ask you for mercy and leniency so I can continue to take care of my parents. I thank my family and real friends for still praying for me."

Flores' guilty plea showed a pattern of corruption.

Count 1 - Flores took money in exchange for her vote to extend a healthcare benefits administration contract. The company was Access Healthsource. Eleven executives and elected officials pleaded guilty in what prosecutors termed the "Poisoned Pawns" investigation.

Count 2 - Flores took cash bribes in exchange for her vote on the underwriting contracts for the Thomason Hospital bond, El Paso County bond, and to award financial advisory contracts at the County of El Paso and for the Thomason bond initiative. 

Count 3 - She accepted $10,000 in cash in exchange for a vote to secure the contract for the El Paso County Parking Garage Annex, and to advocate change orders for that contract.

Count 4 - Flores voted to settle a lawsuit in exchange for help with a misdemeanor case. She didn't report $12,000 in campaign contributions properly.

Count 5 - She accepted money and other benefits in exchange for a vote to settle a lawsuit over a tract of county-owned land, and voted to sell the land known as the "Catalina" development.

Count 6 - Flores accepted money disguised as campaign contributions in exchange for a vote to secure a contract for digitization of court records for the district clerk's Office. Former District Clerk Gilbert Sanchez and attorney Luther Jones were convicted for the scheme and sentenced to six years in prison.

It was during their 2011 trial that Flores showed her cooperation with the investigation. She testified against Jones, explaining he offered to secure campaign donations for her in exchange for her vote on issues important to him.

When asked if she felt lucky to only be sentenced to probation instead of prison time, Flores replied: "Absolutely, because it could have gone either way. I come from a hard-working, honest family and I take care of my elderly parents. I've just turned my life back to God again and I'm working an honest hard-working job and I will continue to pay back to the community."

Flores was also asked what she had to say to the El Paso community.

"Thank you very much for the ones that have supported me and the ones that didn't I don't blame anyone," she said. "I made bad mistakes and I'm very sorry for them."

During testimony, Flores admitted Jones offered her a bribe so she would vote to increase by 29 percent the pay for a computer technician in the district clerk's office, Fernando Parra.

Parra, also tangled in the public corruption investigation, was sentenced Friday, too.

He received credit for more than 5 months he had already served in prison and was given a one year of supervised release.

Parra, once described as the district clerk's "right-hand man," also testified against Sanchez and Jones in 2011. He said the men would joke about the shady deals they would broker at the courthouse.

"I took an oath to protect the laws of the State of Texas and I regretfully failed to do so," Parra told Montalvo prior to his sentencing. "I am the only one that bears responsibility for my behavior. I am ashamed I participated in defrauding the government I vowed to serve. Please accept my most sincere apologies for my regretful actions. While I am not perfect, I made a sincere effort to become a better person. I am truly sorry your honor."

Parra also testified Jones and former Commissioner Flores schemed together.

"Mr. Jones aimed to advance particular interests, particular vendors and he would meet with her to promote those interests," he told jurors in 2011.