A police report documenting possible mismanagement of public funds in Escobares turned into an investigation that has bounced into the hands of different authorities. The elected official who filed it said he’s “uncomfortable” upon learning it landed in an office that had legal ties to one of the people he named in his initial report.
Upon taking office, Mayor Ivan Escobar filed a report of what he considered to be questionable money transactions involving three public officials, including then-City Secretary Rosario Ramirez, who served under the previous administration.
The report originally created on April 23, according to records obtained by The Monitor, arrived a few weeks ago at the 229th District Attorney’s Office, which employs lead assistant district attorney Abel Villarreal.
“He was her lawyer at one time,” Escobar said Tuesday. “I’m uncomfortable with that.”
District Attorney Gocha Allen Ramirez said Villarreal would be recused from the case, which the ADA in question agreed with, if they found a conflict of interest. But both also said they don’t believe there is a need at this time.
THE CITY COUNCIL MEETING
Last year, a political upheaval in Escobares prompted legal action on behalf of Rosario Ramirez, who felt her employment was at stake when an opposition political party won a majority on the city council.
Villarreal was working in private practice and not yet working under Gocha, who was the district attorney-elect at the time. Villarreal sent the city’s then-mayor, Ruperto Escobar, a letter dated Nov. 23, 2020.
“I am writing this letter on behalf of my client Maria del Rosario Ramirez,” the letter read.
It sought to protect Ramirez’s political speech rights and shield her from perceived political retaliation, unlawful terminations, or hostile work environments.
Days later, Ramirez’s employment was placed as a topic of discussion on the city council agenda.
Underneath planned discussion of approving signatories for bank accounts, setting limits on authorized signers of all city of Escobares and Escobares Economic Development Council bank accounts, and requiring city council approval for expenditures above $500,000, Ramirez’s name appeared under the closed session portion.
“To deliberate the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline, or dismissal of a public officer or employee; namely, the City Secretary, to include possible incompetency, corruption, misconduct or malfeasance, unless the employee elects to have the matter heard in open session,” the agenda read.
When the date arrived to hold the meeting, Dec. 14, 2020, Ramirez’s attorney, Villarreal and Gocha, the DA-elect at the time, showed up, according to the sign-in sheet obtained by The Monitor.
“I just wanted to watch the way that the Escobares city council was working,” Gocha said Friday to explain his presence. “I know that they had — I think that’s when Mayor Escobar, Ruperto Escobar, had — I think that’s the night he resigned, actually. So, it was a meeting that I believe Mr. Escobar had told us about, told me about, and I basically just wanted to attend. I was just watching. Just a person in the audience.”
When the meeting reached the public comments section prior to the closed session portion, Villarreal spoke on behalf of his client.
“One of the things that the council does need to take into account when voting on an item such as this is that it’s not just simply voting on it and you have immunity to say or do anything on anyone,” Villarreal said according to the audio of the meeting, which was obtained by The Monitor. “You have to be careful not to slander the name of anybody, and that could cost the job of somebody because that can bring some legal consequences.”
The ADA said she then sought other legal counsel.
“That was pretty much the end of my representation,” Villarreal said Saturday, adding that Ramirez hired a different attorney after her termination.
Months later when Escobar took office as mayor, he was still thinking about the claims that came up in that old meeting and decided to file a complaint with the police department.
The report mentioned claims that included checks made to relatives of a public official, two former elected officials and the city secretary, Rosario Ramirez.
“He wanted me to look into it,” Eli Gonzalez, Escobares police chief, said.
Gonzalez instead suggested it was best to refer the report to an outside agency and did just that, referring it to the Special Crimes Unit which falls under the purview of Victor Canales, the county attorney.
On May 4, an SCU investigator reported they would be handling the investigation, according to records obtained by The Monitor.
Canales said Tuesday that he decided to hand the case over weeks later.
The county attorney said he considered his work with the city of Escobares for a brief period — which was later disputed by the city council — may have posed a conflict of interest or raised questionable optics before deciding to direct the SCU to refer the case to the Texas Rangers.
Yet it ended up at the DA’s office at its request, Canales said on two occasions.
“Not on my request, not on my request. No way,” Gocha, the DA, said Friday.
The Texas Rangers confirmed to The Monitor they have not received the case.
CASE REMAINS WITH DA
Gocha Allen Ramirez and Abel Vilarreal — the DA and ADA, respectively — both said their office has the case, but both said they could not talk about who was a part of the report.
On Wednesday, the district attorney responded to the question as to who was part of the report.
RAMIREZ: “It has nothing to do, as far as I know, with petty cash, or with Ms. Rosario Ramirez, or with the mayor getting a stipend.”
REPORTER: “OK. So, what you have referred from the Special Crimes is something…”
RAMIREZ: “Something different.”
When asked again Friday to explain the mention of Rosario Ramirez on the report filed by the mayor, the DA offered another explanation in which he mentioned no one was arrested by SCU by the time it reached their office.
“If you’re asking me whether she’s a target, the answer is no,” Gocha said Friday. “A target is a person that, you know, if Special Crimes had come in and told me, ‘You know what, we feel Ms. Ramirez committed some sort of criminal act.’ Then, that would be a target.”
The DA added, “If you’re asking me whether or not she’s mentioned in any investigation that’s been turned over to my office, I can’t tell you that. That’s my answer.”
Villarreal said Saturday that the DA’s office cannot issue details of ongoing investigations.
“Usually we don’t say, ‘oh this person is under investigation,’ or anything like that, until, or once an arrest is made,” Villarreal said.
The ADA said they received the case a few weeks ago and the district attorney has been at the “forefront” of that investigation.
“So far, we haven’t gotten to that point, whether we will or won’t, I don’t know obviously,” Villarreal said about deciding if a recusal is necessary.
“If there’s obviously any point of conflict, then, obviously, I would recuse myself,” Villarreal said Saturday, adding,” if myself or any other prosecutor has a conflict in it, whether they’ve represented somebody in a material aspect that’s a target or anything like that, then of course, I would recuse myself at that time.”
Prosecutors in Texas, like all state attorneys, are governed by Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct and the Texas Disciplinary Rules.
Gaines West, an attorney practicing law for over 50 years and who served in the State Bar of Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct Committee from 1993-1996, explained prosecutors can make their decision based on their best understanding of the rules.
A complaint process acts as a counter balance if a decision is suspected to fall out of compliance.
“Since a DA is publicly elected, and he or she has broad prosecutorial discretion, the opportunity to reward a supporter with a political favor is always present,” West said. “But, in addition to ethics requirements laid out by the Bar, there are also criminal statutes that must be observed or the public servant could end up on the wrong end of a prosecution.”
The state is divided into four ethics regions; Starr County’s Ethics Region Headquarters is San Antonio.
“So, the option that a District Attorney has is to operate within the rules of ethics laid out by our Texas Bar Association. If someone files a grievance, the Bar will open an investigation of their own to determine if there is Just Cause to proceed with a Complaint,” West said.
For now, the DA’s office does not believe a conflict of interest exists.
“Ms. Ramirez is not a target. So, that in no way would disqualify me or any of the other assistants from working on the case, even though Mr. Villarreal may have represented her for one meeting,” Gocha said. “And, I believe that’s basically all he did for her, was represent her on that issue.”
Escobar, the mayor who filed the report, said he was unsettled by the situation and plans to request a meeting with the DA in the coming days.