EL PASO, Texas - The lone defendant to plead not guilty in the Operation Poisoned Pawns case had his attorney disqualified just as jury selection was set to begin on Tuesday.
Joe Spencer, the attorney for Willie Gandara, Jr., told ABC-7 that in his many decades as an attorney in El Paso, he has never been disqualified from a case at such a late date and he wonders if there is more to his disqualification than the fact he's also representing Gandara's son in a federal drug case.
"Up until a few days ago, there had been no indication from the government that Willie (Gandara), Jr., was going to be a witness," Spencer said.
Spencer was the attorney for both Willie Gandara, Sr., accused of accepting a $1,000 bribe for his vote with the Socorro Independent School District board on a health contract with Access Healthsource, and his son, Willie Gandara, Jr., the former county commissioner who recently pleaded guilty to federal drug charges.
"Willie Gandara, Junior's, case is completely different," Spencer said. "It's a federal drug case and has nothing to do with this alleged public corruption."
That is until U.S. Attorneys indicated last minute that after talking with 10 other defendants in the case who have already pleaded guilty, Gandara, Junior's, testimony will be necessary to present their case against his father.
"Whether or not the government really needs Willie Gandara, Jr., on what they perceive that they're going to try to make these quantum leaps on is a question that ultimately the government is going to have to deal with when they end up trying the case," Spencer said.
The U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment. But it's motion to determine conflict stated: "As a result of the dual representation of the father and the son, Mr. Spencer would be required to cross-examine, and possibly impeach, his own client, the son, in the father's trial."
ABC-7 asked Spencer if that would be a conflict.
"That could be a conflict because I would not be able to cross-examine him in the same manner that I would a witness that I was not representing," Spencer said. "I can see that."
But Spencer wondered if there's more to the situation.
"It's hard to say," Spencer said. "But I will tell you the government is representing they perceive it as a conflict and that's the motive behind it. I'm disappointed that I'm not able to present a vigorous defense for Mr. Gandara. We were ready to try this case and time will tell what's going to happen."
Federal Judge Frank Montalvo reset Gandara, Senior's, trial for March. His other attorney, Joseph Vasquez, is expected to represent him without Spencer. He did not return calls for comment.
Spencer said his client, Gandara, Senior, was "devastated" by the situation and having to wait another six months to potentially prove his innocence.