EDINBURG — On Friday, Edinburg Police Chief Cesar Torres sat in the same city council chambers where he accepted the job as the city’s top cop and was sworn in nearly two years ago.
The mood Friday, however, was not celebratory.
Torres sat in the hot seat during a day-long hearing where he defended his personnel actions that the Edinburg United Police Officers Association, or EUPOA, has alleged were retaliation for union activity.
A federal judge had ordered the arbitration in a lawsuit levied by the union, which is one of two in the department, after officers Eric Salazar and Arnaldo Ysquierdo — who also serve as EUPOA secretary and trustee, respectively — alleged they were removed from favorable positions in the Criminal Investigations Division due to union activity and lost pay in the process, in addition to favorable work conditions. While in CID, they had received better pay and regular shifts, office space and didn’t have to wear uniforms to regular patrol.
The union alleges the men were reassigned because they opposed Torres’ request to change the Meet and Confer Agreement to allow for lateral hires.
The officers filed grievances, which the city had refused to arbitrate, arguing Torres had authority under the agreement to reassign officers as he saw fit.
The arbitration began last week and concluded this week.
During Torres’ testimony, however, there was far more in question than Salazar and Ysquierdo’s complaints.
His day-long testimony ranged over topics that have made headlines since his tenure, including the appointment of patrol officer Juan Hernandez to assistant chief and that officer’s purchase of Jennifer Lopez tickets with the union credit card, which became the target of an administrative investigation that ultimately exonerated the man. Torres had upheld that recommendation.
Armando Celedon, a former president of the union who informed Torres of the purchases, also came up.
Torres placed Celedon on administrative leave over allegations of tampering with a government record and official oppression before indefinitely suspending Celedon, who was arrested on the charges. A grand jury no-billed Celedon.
The chief’s testimony also detailed a number of Internal Affairs investigations into officers during his tenure.
The questioning also raised previously unreported allegations against the chief, namely that a sergeant accused him of harassing two female officers who later received reassignments that increased their pay after the complaint was filed.
Internal Affairs exonerated Torres of the accusations, a decision that Torres himself upheld.
In March 2019, Torres said under questioning by EUPOA attorney David Willis, that former city manager Juan Guerra ordered him to open an Internal Affairs investigation into himself for a violation of the city’s harassment policy.
The investigation was recorded in an Internal Department Communication filed by Sgt. Patricia Champion that was sent to Assistant Chief Peter De La Garza. Champion alleged that Torres harassed two women, officers Sarah Rodriguez and Arielle Benedict, both of whom have previously worked as public information officers.
The details of the allegations did not surface during Torres’ testimony, but the chief said Internal Affairs exonerated him and he upheld the decision. He also testified that De La Garza, the assistant chief, was involved in that decision.
“I was the victim there, not Sarah,” Torres said.
Champion later alleged that Torres retaliated against her for memorializing Rodriguez and Benedict’s outcries, testimony showed.
Torres said that after Champion showed the complaint to Rodriguez, she called the chief.
The chief said on the same day of Champion’s memorandum, he met with Rodriguez and Benedict at a golf course near the police department — not his office — where they made statements that contradicted statements made by Champion.
Willis, the union attorney, alleged Torres tampered with witnesses in the Internal Affairs investigation that exonerated the chief, who had the final say on whether to accept the findings in the case as in all cases, the attorney said.
Torres denied the allegation.
After that meeting, however, both Rodriguez and Benedict received assignments to the honor guard, which included pay increases. Torres said he approved those moves, but had no role in selecting the officers.
In April, Rodriguez was assigned to CID, which included an additional pay increase. Torres testified he had nothing to do with the transfer except to approve it, which Willis alleged contradicted his role in the transfers of Salazar and Ysquierdo.
Both officers also received public information officer duties in March 2019, which Torres said does not include extra pay.
The alleged harassment policy violation isn’t the first time the chief has been investigated by the department’s internal affairs office.
In January, he served a five-day suspension for not being truthful during an investigation, which Torres denied Friday.
The suspension occurred over an allegation that he closed an investigation into former City Manager Juan Guerra, who hired Torres. Police alleged Guerra assaulted his ex-fiancé, Miriam Cepeda, a former legislative affairs liaison with the city.
Torres was accused of closing the case, but on Friday he said that was false. Instead, Torres said he turned the case over to Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra at the sheriff’s request.
On the fifth day of Torres’ suspension, the former city manager turned himself in to authorities.
Torres was also accused of directing an investigator to arrest Cepeda on extortion charges, which the chief denied.
Before the former city manager turned himself in on Jan. 15, he held a press conference where he accused Cepeda of extortion.
Much of the discord that appears to exist within sections of the Edinburg Police Department can be linked to the March 2019 promotion of Juan Hernandez, a patrol officer, to assistant chief.
The subject is mentioned in the union lawsuit, which details the union’s decision to vote against updating the Meet and Confer Agreement to allow Torres to hire someone to fill this position, which is an appointed position, from outside the department.
On Friday, Torres testified that he sought to hire outside the department because he found no suitable candidates within the department, until he began interacting with Hernandez, the former president of the union.
In late January, Torres said he brought up issues he had with De La Garza, who is still an assistant chief in a non-appointed position, and former assistant chief Orlando Garcia, who Torres said told him that he wanted to step down from the position.
Torres said he asked Garcia to give it a try under his leadership but according to the chief, Garcia submitted a letter asking to be removed from the position.
In a bid to fill that position, Torres set off on a plan to get the union to allow him to hire from outside the agency because he had a few candidates he had worked with at the Texas Department of Public Safety who he thought would be a good fit.
But because of the union vote, he wasn’t allowed to pursue those former colleagues.
When asked why he didn’t appoint any of his lieutenants, Torres provided a range of reasons that included disciplinary problems; several officers who were not interested in the position; one lieutenant — councilmember David White — had already been demoted; a nepotism concern; and retirement.
“I do know from the lists of lieutenants I had, I just couldn’t promote anybody,” Torres said.
When asked why he didn’t promote any sergeants, Torres said that was because he held a meeting with them after he was hired where all they did was complain, according to Torres, who said this frustrated him so he found there were no viable candidates at that level.
However, his conversations and interactions with then-union president Hernandez left an impression on the chief. Torres described Hernandez as energetic and hungry for work. So, without consulting anyone, he decided to appoint a patrol officer to assistant chief, which he said Friday angered people within the police department.
Torres testified that he is allowed to promote anyone within the department to that position who had five years of experience with two of those years being continuous at the Edinburg Police Department.
When asked why he chose a less-experienced officer, Torres pointed to his time operating a crime interdiction taskforce with DPS where he hired less experienced officers who were hungry for work, which ruffled feathers at DPS because he didn’t hire vets. Torres, however, said the taskforce was successful. This influenced his decision. Torres said Hernandez’s role as president of the union also influenced his decision.
Hernandez’s promotion brought a $30,000 pay raise. Torres said if he had chosen a lieutenant, the officer would have gotten around a $14,000 to $15,000 pay raise.
During questioning, Torres said the pros of appointing Hernandez was that a lot of work got done, including the purchase of equipment and an increase of forfeitures, including $13 million in cash.
Torres felt Hernandez helped accomplish a lot.
The negative, Torres said, was he didn’t have a picture of the relationship between Hernandez and the management team and it caused a lot of anger.
In fact, De La Garza, who has long served as an assistant chief, complained about Hernandez’s promotion.
“I love all my staff but it is hurtful to see my assistant chief begin to pull in a different direction,” Torres said.
Approximately two months after Hernandez’s appointment to assistant chief, the union voted to refer the case of the purchase of Jennifer Lopez concert tickets by Hernandez with the union credit card to the Texas Rangers.
The allegation was that Hernandez bought four tickets to the concert worth $600 without the union’s knowledge. He had been authorized to buy four tickets that would be used as prizes for the winners of a race where some of the proceeds would be donated to the Children’s Advocacy Center of Hidalgo County.
Instead, eight tickets worth $1,200 were charged to the card. Hernandez has not been charged in the case.
The issue arrived on Torres’ desk from Celedon, who was union president at the time.
Torres testified that Celedon told him that he didn’t believe Hernandez had committed a crime and the case was turned over to Internal Affairs, which Torres exercises direct control over and makes the final decision on whether to sustain IA investigative findings.
In a whistleblower lawsuit, Celedon alleged he signed a statement saying he didn’t believe Hernandez committed a crime under duress.
IA found Hernandez did not commit a policy violation and Torres agreed.
Eventually, Hernandez would be “unappointed” from the position in January and transferred back to the patrol division at the order of then interim City Manager Richard Hinojosa.
Torres testified on Friday that he was willing to lose his job over the order but let Hernandez make the decision.
The chief said he would disobey the order if Hernandez wanted him to, but that he also told Hernandez that if he disobeyed the order he would be fired and Hernandez would be transferred back to patrol anyway.
Torres said Hernandez told him he would go back to patrol.
After Hernandez’s March 2019 appointment to assistant chief, a series of Internal Affairs investigations occurred that targeted officers connected to the Jennifer Lopez complaint, as well as to complaints about Hernandez’s appointment.
The most notable investigation ended in the arrest of Celedon, the union president who notified Torres of Hernandez’s purchase of the Jennifer Lopez tickets.
In June 2019, a municipal court supervisor, Celine Pardo, approached Torres and Internal Affairs to report that two of her clerks and a city marshal had seen Celedon direct a woman to sign her husband’s signature on a document to take care of a traffic ticket.
Pardo, who was fired when the new council took over, testified Friday that she didn’t actually observe this but felt obligated to report it. She also testified she is related to former commissioner David Torres, who abstained from voting to hire her in 2018. He did not seek re-election.
The chief assigned the case to an investigator and in August 2019, police arrested Celedon and charged him with official oppression and tampering with a government record.
Ultimately, Celedon filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the department alleging his arrest and termination was retaliation for reporting Hernandez for purchasing the Jennifer Lopez tickets.
A grand jury no-billed Celedon and the city settled with the traffic investigator, reinstating him to his position and awarding him back pay.
Torres testified Friday that he disagreed with the grand jury’s decision and said the Hernandez and Celedon cases were separate.
“It’s got nothing to do with each other,” he said.
Around the same time Celedon was placed on administrative leave, another officer and union member named Primitivo Rodriguez was also placed on administrative leave.
Torres’ testimony didn’t reveal why Rodriguez was placed on administrative leave several days after Celedon and before being indefinitely suspended on Oct. 1, 2019.
However, Rodriguez, the union’s treasurer, is the union member who notified Torres in May 2019 that the union had voted to refer the case of Hernandez and the Jennifer Lopez tickets to the Texas Rangers for investigation into a possible crime, according to testimony.
Eventually, the city manager ordered Rodriguez’s reinstatement.
Then there’s De La Garza, the assistant chief, who had confronted Torres about the criminal investigation into Celedon and just seven days later, he too was the target of an Internal Affairs investigation, according to testimony at Friday’s hearing.
The allegations against De La Garza included that he argued with Hernandez about a shift change plan for patrol; that he failed to equip officers with the tools they needed for years; and that he failed to conduct an investigation into an officer-involved shooting that occurred before Torres was even chief.
Willis, the attorney, pointed out that all Internal Affairs actions must take place within 180 days of the allegation, not years later.
Nonetheless, Internal Affairs sustained the allegations and Torres upheld the recommendation. De La Garza, however, faced no discipline, Torres said.
During Friday’s hearings, Torres disputed Salazar and Ysquierdo’s allegations that their transfer from the CID to patrol were retaliation for union activity.
As for Salazar, Torres said he fell out of favor after approaching him about the “Carranza investigation,” who Torres said Salazar described as a VIP.
This is the theft case targeting Juan Carlos Carranza, who operated New Mark Custom Homes, and is accused of scamming Rio Grande Valley families out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He is currently in federal custody after federal authorities arrested him in September on an indictment alleging that on April 16 he was in possession of four guns and nearly 1,000 rounds of ammunition and as a felon, he cannot have weapons.
His theft case was covered extensively by television news.
When Salazar approached Torres, the chief said he thought Salazar was being a braggart by coming to him with the case and said he also had concerns about how the then-investigator was handling the case.
A few months later, Torres, who said he doesn’t pay much attention to the news because it often gets things wrong, said he was leaving the department and saw news media doing an interview in front of the police department. So he watched and learned that a television station was reporting how the alleged victims were disappointed nothing was happening with the case.
Torres testified he confronted Salazar about this and learned that he hadn’t arrested Carranza and had instead sent the case over to the District Attorney without an arrest. Torres said he ordered Salazar to arrest Carranza, who instead turned himself in to Edinburg police.
But that’s not why Torres said he reassigned Salazar to patrol.
The chief said he reassigned Salazar because every time he saw the investigator he was inside his lieutenant’s office, which left Torres with the impression that he was not working.
Early on, Torres said that he learned that from January 2004 to Jan. 1, 2019, Edinburg police had more than 13,000 open cases, which he said was very concerning to him.
Because of this, Torres said he was concerned with officers he felt were not using their on-duty time to crack cases.
The chief presented the same reasoning Friday for Ysquierdo’s reassignment, saying he was always in his lieutenant’s office.
“No, it has nothing to do with union affiliation. It has everything to do with performance issues,” Torres said.
The chief added that he replaced the officers with members of the same union.
As for Ysquierdo, Torres denied knowing that he was a union board member, but Willis pointed out to the chief that the Internal Affairs complaint Torres said he read regarding the Jennifer Lopez tickets lists Ysquierdo as a board member.
Also, Willis asked Torres whether he thought two lieutenants who previously testified during arbitration that they had no performance problems with the officers were lying.
Torres said he stands by his sworn testimony.
Even as the arbitration was nearing, complaints in the department continue to fly.
In the latest case, Internal Affairs Investigator Rogelio Paez interviewed an officer in order to help Torres prepare for the arbitration hearing by interviewing potential witnesses that Torres could use to support his personnel decisions.
The officer filed a complaint alleging that Paez threatened him to testify, which Torres said he forwarded to the Human Resources Department.
The hearing also revealed that Torres can no longer unilaterally make disciplinary decisions. Now, there is a process in place to vet those decisions through the city attorney, the human resources director and the city manager.
And while Willis, the union attorney, and the officers who allege retaliation from Torres because of union activity, Torres said during the hearing that it’s difficult to discipline officers in his department because there are so many cliques and familial relationships there.
In fact, Torres said about 50 to 60 people within the department have familial relationships. There are about 160 officers in the department.
“That’s happened to me here 100%,” Torres said.
The chief said if someone gets punished, family members and allies back them up and people think that Torres is coming after them.
“It’s a very big problem. You have cliques,” he said.
Torres said it’s a problem that his predecessor faced and it’s a problem his successor will face.
As for the arbitration, the arbiter is expected to make a ruling on whether to uphold Torres’ decision to transfer Salazar and Ysquierdo or to reinstate them in about two months.