Embattled Edinburg Police Chief Cesar Torres filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city of Edinburg on Wednesday, claiming the city gave him the option to resign or be fired because he reported an insurance fraud scheme by an investigator to the FBI.
Torres filed the lawsuit the same day a federal judge affirmed an arbitrator’s ruling that he retaliated against two police officers who, in their capacity as members of the Edinburg United Police Officers Association, or EUPOA, opposed a proposal Torres made early on in his tenure to hire an assistant chief from outside of the police department.
At 10:06 a.m. Thursday, state District Judge Bobby Flores signed a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from taking adverse personnel action against Torres.
Flores’ order bars the city from taking “adverse personnel action(s) against Torres, including terminating his employment,” until after the FBI completes its investigation “into allegations of criminal misconduct by several suspects…”
The city had given Torres until 3 p.m. Thursday to respond to City Manager Ron Garza’s April 29 recommendation to fire him.
A hearing on that temporary restraining order is scheduled for May 17.
Torres claims the adverse employment actions taken against him are rooted in his concerns that a police investigator was involved in an insurance fraud conspiracy where thefts were reported and he allegedly pulled police reports to determine whether video evidence existed.
The chief claims that if video didn’t exist, the investigator reported back to his alleged co-conspirators, who then filed insurance claims and provided him a cut.
“Once the insurance company paid the claims, the co-conspirators split the proceeds paid out by the insurance companies. Torres was informed that Investigator Y would pull the Edinburg Police Department’s incident reports (of the staged thefts) as soon as they were filed to verify whether any video footage was part of the case file, report such information to the co-conspirators and then get his cut of the payout by the insurance company on the false theft claims filed,” Torres alleged.
The newspaper has identified “Investigator Y” as traffic investigator Armando Celedon, according to documents provided to The Monitor by the city.
The city has disputed Torres’ reasons for his dismissal and indicated Garza asked him to resign because he discriminated against two officers.
“Chief Torres responded by making serious allegations against City Manager Garza and demanding two years of salary to resign. Chief Torres never alleged any misconduct prior to being asked to resign,” the statement read. “The City of Edinburg completed a review and, pursuant to its standard procedures, provided Chief Torres a written notice of the basis for his termination. Chief Torres was given a week to provide a written or verbal response, but instead filed a lawsuit and requested a Temporary Restraining order.”
The city says it will follow the temporary order and not alter the chief’s employment status.
“But the City will defend itself against the baseless allegations made by Chief Torres, and will seek to lift the temporary restraining order at the hearing scheduled for May 17, 2021,” the statement read.
Torres was placed on administrative leave April 12, following an April 7 ruling from arbitrator Richard Brann that said he violated the city’s Meet and Confer Agreement with the EUPOA for retaliation against two police officers for their membership and/or activity in the union.
Documents the city provided to The Monitor, including a letter Garza sent to Torres’ attorney Katie Klein on April 26, show Torres threatened to sue the city April 12 if it didn’t agree to a proposed settlement.
The city manager’s letter provided a proposal, including severance, for Torres’ resignation and asked Torres to respond no later than 5 p.m. April 27.
Torres’ attorney responded April 27 and accused the city manager, city attorney and an assistant city manager of ignoring an allegation of public corruption and trying to chill an investigation by speaking with Internal Affairs investigator Rogelio Paez.
“You later denied speaking with Officer Paez on the aforementioned date until it was pointed out to you that there was a recording of the call wherein you have now admitted the conversation occurred,” Klein wrote.
Klein said Garza’s actions in “chilling the investigation” were reported.
“Chief Torres is clearly a whistleblower entitled to protection. His First Amendment rights are being violated and you are choosing to conceal possible public corruption for unknown reasons. If you wish to discuss, please contact me or suit will be filed,” Klein wrote.
Torres’ lawsuit makes no mention of the EUPOA lawsuit against the city, which was dismissed Wednesday, or the arbitrator’s ruling.
That ruling, which reinstated the officers to favorable positions, was confirmed by a federal judge Wednesday.
In his suit, Torres claims Garza and Edinburg city attorney Omar Ochoa met with him April 7 — the same day the arbitrator issued the ruling against the chief — and gave him the option to resign or be fired.
The city says that the meeting happened April 8.
Torres alleges the city manager gave him four options: 1) resign and have the opportunity to “write the narrative” 2) take two weeks’ worth of pay and write “the narrative” with Garza’s help 3) force Garza to conduct an “investigation” and fire him or 4) have Garza simply fire him, the lawsuit stated.
Garza said he gave the police chief the option to resign on his own terms; reach a severance agreement; be placed on administrative leave with pay pending a review; or immediate termination.
Torres believes Garza asked him to resign or be fired because he reported an investigator’s alleged insurance fraud scheme to the FBI after he says Garza told him not to investigate it.
Garza sent a letter to Torres April 29, notifying him that he was recommending he be terminated because of the adverse arbitration ruling
“The Edinburg PD has been bitterly fractured for more than two years. This has included my entire one-year tenure as City Manager and for more than a year before I came to the city,” Garza wrote. “The severity of the fracture, its origin close to the start of your tenure, your actions to perpetuate the fracture during your tenure, and the effect on PD operations and morale was explained in detail during the arbitration proceeding.”
The city manager cited five reasons for recommending Garza’s termination, including no confidence in his leadership; a violation of the city’s nondiscrimination policy; documented history of repeated violations of city policies; documented history of counseling, training and disciplinary action for poor management; failure to improve management despite counseling, training and guidance; and failure to complete a performance improvement plan.
Torres also claims that on April 12, the city manager, the city attorney, and assistant city manager Jesus Saenz questioned an Internal Affairs investigator, referred to as Investigator X in court documents, about the fraud allegations.
“During said meeting, City Manager Garza made false statements to Investigator X which are proven false by an audio recording,” the lawsuit stated.
The three city officials “were unprofessional and made comments that indicate they were interfering with a criminal investigation into the allegations of criminal misconduct made against” traffic investigator Celedon, who the lawsuit never names, but refers to him instead as “Investigator Y.”
According to the suit, Investigator X reported “Garza’s interference into the investigation, harassment, and false statements” to the city.
The chief’s whistleblower lawsuit says that on Sept. 18, 2020, “Investigator X” received a complaint that Celedon was involved in a criminal conspiracy to commit insurance fraud.
And though the lawsuit never refers to Celedon by name, a footnote indicates that “Investigator Y had been previously arrested and fired from the City of Edinburg for committing a Felony and a Misdemeanor for which there was video footage providing his criminal conduct, but he was later reinstated to his position as a City Police Investigator, against orders of the Chief of Police Torres.”
Celedon was previously fired by Torres after police arrested him on charges of official oppression and tampering with a government record.
However, Celedon, the current EUPOA president, was no-billed in his criminal case, sued the city, settled and was reinstated to his job with back pay.
Celedon also opposed Torres’ proposal for lateral hires, and as a union member voted to report another officer and former EUPOA member to the Texas Rangers over allegations of impropriety regarding the purchase of Jennifer Lopez tickets with the union’s credit card.
“Investigator X” told Torres that Celedon and co-conspirators were removing items from homes and staging a theft before reporting the items as stolen to the insurance companies and making false claims for benefits under the insurance policies.
The chief says he notified the city manager that same day and told him he would be contacting the Texas Rangers and FBI for assistance.
Torres said Garza told him there were additional details that needed to be gathered before solidifying a direction, and that an assistant city manager would set up a meeting to explore the matter further.
“Do not take action at this point until we have met to discuss. If there is a sense of urgency that I’m not seeing, please let me know. Till then, just hold till Monday,” Garza wrote, according to Torres’ lawsuit.
Several days later, on Sept. 24, an Internal Affairs investigator told Torres that Garza and the city attorney had called Internal Affairs to ask about the complaint against Celedon, according to the chief.
“Torres was informed by Internal Affairs investigators that the original complainant had not yet delivered a written complaint about the insurance fraud allegations and that, therefore, the investigators would not be conducting an administrative investigation into the matter at that time,” the lawsuit states. “One of the investigators informed Torres that City of Edinburg City Attorney Omar Ochoa sounded ‘relieved’ by the news.”
According to Torres, the Internal Affairs investigators said they both felt Garza and Ochoa “intimidated them and were interfering.”
Torres said in the petition that Garza and Ochoa should have reached out to him “and not to investigators who are subordinates and prone to intimidation.”
The following day, during a census parade at the city hall parking lot, Torres said he told Garza he wanted to meet with him to discuss the allegation against Celedon.
“City of Edinburg City Manager Ron Garza told Torres that they ‘need[ed] to leave that[at] alone.’ Torres explained to City Manager Garza that the original complainant was hesitant to file the written complaint against Investigator Y because Investigator Y knew a lot of influential people in Edinburg, Texas, and that the complainant feared for his life if he filed the complaint. City Manager Garza told Torres: ‘Don’t worry about it, Chief,’” the litigation stated.
On Oct. 2, 2020, Torres said he met with FBI agents at the Edinburg Police Department and reported the alleged insurance fraud conspiracy against Garza’s orders.
That same day, Torres said he met with Garza at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance and mentioned he was investigating Celedon for criminal misconduct and, according to the chief, Garza said he did not have time.
Torres again reached out to Garza Oct. 9, 2020, “and City Manager Garza told Torres that he did not want the matter investigated,” the lawsuit states.
The chief says in the petition that this bothered him.
“Torres was also afraid of losing his job if City of Edinburg officials found out that Torres reported the criminal misconduct allegations to the FBI, the litigation stated.
Then, on Oct. 30, following a murder-suicide, Torres said Garza told him he was going to “clean up (the) administration.”
“City Manager Ron Garza called Torres and stated he was upset because Berryhill failed to record a call for service from the day before, which later turned into a Murder/Suicide,” the lawsuit said.
At the time, The Monitor filed a Texas Public Information Act request for that call and the records, but the department said since it was under investigation it would be referred to the Attorney General for an opinion.
The Monitor refiled its request Thursday after initially withdrawing the open record request.
Torres said he “felt threatened, offended, and believed that (Garza’s) statement was not only inappropriate but threatening and came as a result of the Investigator Y incident. Torres immediately documented the incident,” the lawsuit stated.
On Nov. 4, 2020, Torres met with the FBI and told agents Garza did not want to pursue the criminal investigation.
Two days later, Torres approached Garza at the renaming of a park and told him he had spoken to the FBI about the alleged scheme.
“City Manager Garza told Torres, ‘Why did you do that?’ to which Torres responded, ‘Because you don’t want it investigated,’” the lawsuit states. “City Manager Garza then walked away from Torres and ignored him for the rest of the event.”
Torres says the FBI investigation is still active.
“There are several other incidents that have occurred where Torres was harassed and targeted by City Manager Ron Garza and Councilman David White as a result of Torres’s reporting the allegations against Investigator Y of criminal misconduct,” the petition read.
White was the former police chief, but he was demoted in 2018 when former city manager Juan Guerra, who eventually hired Torres, determined White’s performance was “unsatisfactory” based on public safety rankings found on websites like wallethub.com.
Guerra is no longer with the city.
White eventually decided to retire and the police department threw a going away party for him where he mentioned his bid for city council.
Torres determined White was campaigning on the clock and placed him on administrative leave with pay for his last day with the department.
White, who later won a seat on the council, also sued the city, alleging his demotion was based on his race and age.
As for Torres, he says the whole ordeal has left him with severe headaches.
“Torres’s stress, insomnia, and anxiety have been so severe to the point that he has had to be prescribed medication by his physician. Torres has been taking antidepressants and has needed to take pills in order to be able to sleep,” the lawsuit stated.
The chief is also seeking monetary relief of more than $200,000 but not more than $1 million.