Edinburg police chief Cesar Torres had an ultimatum: resign or be fired.
City Manager Ron Garza drew a line in the sand for Torres on April 8 following a ruling the previous day by a neutral arbitrator that the city’s top cop had discriminated against two of his officers for their membership and activity with a union.
When Garza confronted Torres with his options for leaving the city, Torres asked for some time to think.
April 8 was a Thursday and Garza gave Torres until the following Monday, April 12, to consider his options and make a decision.
Documents obtained by The Monitor show that Garza provided Torres with what he called a “generous” settlement offer totaling nearly $60,000 that when combined with his vacation pay amounted to $70,651.03 because the city manager sought a “peaceful reset” at the police department.
The city manager noted that some community members and people in the police department would see the offer as unnecessarily generous.
“Why would the City pay such a large amount to someone that a neutral arbitrator determined discriminated against police officers? But the value of a peaceful transition to a new Chief so that the Department can move forward is extremely valuable to me, the City, and the community. It’s what I wanted, and what I had hoped you would ultimately agree to, when we first spoke the day after the City received the arbitration decision,” Garza wrote.
The city manager did not get what he wanted.
Instead, Torres provided the city manager a demand letter at the April 12 meeting seeking two years of pay — $282,077.82 — as well as $15,000 in attorney fees, the removal of any discipline from Torres’ personnel file, a neutral letter of recommendation and a non-disparagement agreement.
If the city didn’t meet these demands, Torres’ attorney, Katie Klein, suggested she would file a whistleblower lawsuit on the chief’s behalf against the city.
On May 5, that’s exactly what happened, and the following day, 139th state District Judge Bobby Flores signed a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from firing Torres until the conclusion of an apparent FBI investigation into the union’s president over insurance fraud allegations, which Torres claims Garza and other city officials tried to quash.
The filing and temporary restraining order are just the latest development in more than two years of what Garza has called “a bitter fracture” in the police department that’s marked by disciplinary actions, reassignments, the union president’s arrest, lawsuits and allegations of wrongdoing.
PATTERN OF SCRUTINY
Torres’ first day at the Edinburg Police Department was Jan. 7, 2019.
But even before then, questions about his hiring surfaced when it was revealed he received a conditional offer of employment on Dec. 11, 2018.
That happened one day before he submitted his job application.
Former city manager Juan Guerra, who had been on the job since October and had demoted former chief and current council member David White based on crime rankings culled from websites like wallethub.com, hired Torres.
Then, two days after his start date, The Monitor reported that the Texas Department of Public Safety had demoted Torres in May 2018 from lieutenant to patrol sergeant after finding he “coerced a recruit applicant into signing a department recruiting form so that (Torres) could receive a pecuniary benefit.”
That case eventually made its way to the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office, which declined to prosecute Torres.
The chief had found himself under investigation by DPS in January 2017 after a sergeant submitted a complaint alleging he “was creating a hostile and unprofessional work atmosphere.”
Torres denied those allegations, telling The Monitor at the time that there are two sides to every story.
Then, just weeks into his tenure, on Jan. 21, 2019, Torres makes a decision that will result in a union lawsuit, a series of reassignments for opponents of this decision and ultimately the April 7 ruling that he discriminated against two police officers.
He asks then-Edinburg United Police Officers Association president Juan “Jay” Hernandez to bring a proposal to a vote with the union to amend the Meet and Confer Agreement to allow Torres to hire an assistant chief from outside of the Edinburg Police Department.
On Feb. 19, 2019, the union voted down that proposal.
The denial of Torres’ proposal set off a series of incidents over the next year that became the basis of the union’s lawsuit against the city, which alleged the chief discriminated against officers for their membership and activity with the union.
The first of these incidents was Torres’ decision to promote Hernandez from patrolman to assistant chief on March 11, 2019.
Hernandez had supported Torres’ proposal to hire outside the department for the position, and after his appointment, he left the union.
Nearly two months later, on May 10, 2019, the union met to discuss finances and discovered unapproved spending by Hernandez, according to union president Armando Celedon.
The discrepancy involved the purchase of Jennifer Lopez concert tickets with the union credit card, and on May 16, 2019, the union voted to investigate that purchase, which was reported to law enforcement.
A few days later Celedon informs Torres about the union’s vote to investigate Hernandez’s purchase.
By summer of that year, an Internal Affairs investigation had cleared Hernandez of any wrongdoing and Celedon found himself placed on administrative leave, fired and then arrested and charged with official oppression and tampering with a government record.
Torres made another significant decision that summer: reassigning two police officers and union members who opposed his proposal from favorable positions in investigations to patrol.
Those officers are Eric Salazar, the union secretary at the time, and Arnaldo Ysquierdo, a union trustee. They both filed grievances, which Torres refused to respond to and the city refused to arbitrate — until a federal judge later ordered the city to do so.
As summer inched closer to fall that year, a Hidalgo County grand jury no-billed Celedon, who later filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city.
Edinburg eventually settled with the officer and reinstated him to his position as a traffic investigator.
As the coronavirus pandemic reached Hidalgo County in March 2020 ushering in a year of hardship, the union escalated its conflict with Torres by sending a letter demanding arbitration on behalf of Ysquierdo and Salazar.
When the city refused to do so, the union sued the city, setting off a year-long legal process that culminated April 7 when the neutral arbitrator ruled that Torres discriminated against the officers.
In late May 2020, the city moved the litigation from state to federal court where it landed in front of U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez.
On Sept. 22, 2020, Alvarez ordered the city of Edinburg to arbitrate Ysquierdo and Salazar’s claims. That set the stage for a five-day hearing in December at City Hall that featured testimony from about a dozen police officers and had Torres on the stand for a full day.
In an April 29 letter from Garza informing the chief that he is recommending termination, Garza recalls how the arbitration included officers from all levels, including lieutenants, sergeants and police officers.
“The testimony was incredibly forthright at times, with officers testifying under oath about lacking respect for the decisions you have made, lacking trust in you, and the belief that the morale of the department is at its lowest point in some time,” Garza wrote.
Several months passed after that December hearing before Richard R. Brann, the neutral arbitrator, ruled that Torres did indeed discriminate against Ysquierdo and Salazar for their union activity, a violation of the same Meet and Confer Agreement which Torres wanted modified less than a month into his tenure.
Brann’s ruling ordered the city to reinstate the officers to their positions in investigations and awarded back pay stretching back to their August 2019 reassignments.
His ruling, however, went further.
It noted how officers who testified expressed disappointment with Hernandez being appointed to assistant chief, with some describing it as “unbelievable” and a “big mistake.”
Hernandez was demoted back to patrol some time in December. At the time, Torres refused to call it a demotion, and instead said Hernandez was “unappointed.”
Brann also said the case would have been easier if Salazar and Ysquierdo’s reassignments were isolated and the reasons for those reassignments were objectively clear and compelling.
“Unfortunately, neither is the case,” Brann wrote.
Both men were elected to the union board within days of their reassignments and their supervisors testified that they had no problems with the officers.
Furthermore, Brann found Torres had reassigned four other officers from investigations and suspended a lieutenant over alleged tardiness.
All of these officers opposed Torres’ proposal to amend the Meet and Confer Agreement to allow the chief to hire an assistant chief from outside of the department — a fact that didn’t escape Brann’s attention.
He also noted Celedon’s saga of being fired, arrested and eventually no-billed.
Celedon, who is currently the union president again, not only opposed Torres’ proposal, he reported the unauthorized spending on the union’s credit card by Hernandez, who supported the chief’s proposal and was later appointed assistant chief when Torres’ proposal failed.
And it appears Celedon’s saga did not end after the city reinstated him to his position in January 2020.
While the writing was on the wall after Brann’s ruling, Garza, the city manager, drew the final line in the sand for Torres on April 29.
He told Torres he was going to recommend his termination and provided the chief until May 5 at 3 p.m. to either respond in person or in writing to his recommendation.
That deadline passed, and a little more than two hours later, at 5:09 p.m., Torres filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging Garza and other city officials tried to quash an investigation into a police officer — who Torres reported to the FBI — over insurance fraud allegations.
That investigator is Celedon, the union president, and he has not been charged with a crime. In a complaint he filed to Internal Affairs, Ramon Chasco accused Celedon of being involved in a conspiracy of staged thefts involving insurance claims.
At the December arbitration hearing, officers testified the chief used Internal Affairs and investigations as a weapon against officers that he didn’t like and to give a pass to those he did.
And it was Internal Affairs that investigated Celedon the first time on charges of official oppression and tampering with a government record, of which the investigator was later cleared.
Torres’ attorney, Klein, said in a letter to Garza that the FBI investigation into Celedon is active.
On May 6, just after 10 a.m., Flores, the judge, signed a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from firing Torres until the conclusion of the FBI investigation.
The city will challenge that temporary restraining order Monday morning and characterized Torres’ allegations that the city manager interfered with the investigation as baseless.
That lawsuit, however, was just the first action Torres took against the city.
On Thursday, he filed another lawsuit targeting the city, former interim city manager Richard Hinojosa and White, the former chief and a current city council member.
In this lawsuit, Torres complains of his Jan. 10, 2020, five-day suspension without pay.
Hinojosa, then-city manager, suspended Torres for three reasons: failing to timely report domestic violence allegations that a former city employee levied against a former city manager; investigating himself over an allegation that he hired a cadet with whom he had a close relationship; and asking for a council member’s “blessing” to demote an assistant chief.
Torres alleges the city violated due process laws by not letting him respond to these allegations, which he says are false, though the same lawsuit notes he responded to the suspension verbally and in writing.
Much of this lawsuit, however, revolves around White — Torres’ predecessor at the police department.
The chief placed White on administrative leave on White’s last day at the department before he retired because White announced his bid for city council and asked those present to vote for him at a retirement party the city threw for him. Torres made the decision because electioneering while on city time is a violation of the city charter.
Then in November 2019, White was elected to city council, and according to Torres, that’s when his work troubles began.
The chief now alleges White filed a bogus complaint against him alleging he was having an affair with an administrative assistant. That allegation was cleared by Internal Affairs.
Torres also claims White told several people at a barbecue in April 2020 that he was going to get Torres fired.
According to the chief, White is the one who told Hinojosa that Torres sought his “blessing” to demote an assistant chief, which Torres says is a blatant lie.
Furthermore, Torres says White has retaliated against him because the chief did not support his political campaign.
“Torres has been the subject of harassment and a hostile work environment. Torres has been under a lot of undue stress and has suffered from anxiety as a result,” the lawsuit reads.
Both of these lawsuits seek monetary relief of more than $200,000 but less than $1 million.
The April 7 arbitration ruling that Torres discriminated against two police officers is notably absent from both of these lawsuits.
While that April 7 arbitration ruling is a concrete turning point in the city manager’s decision to terminate Torres, there are actually six reasons Garza cited in his recommendation to fire the chief.
The April 29 letter Garza wrote to Torres informing him of the recommendation, however, makes clear that his number one reason to fire him is that he lost confidence in Torres’ ability to lead the police department as a result of the ruling.
“The Edinburg PD has been bitterly fractured for more than two years,” Garza wrote.
The city manager says the severity of the fracture began close to the start of Torres’ tenure and was perpetuated by his actions and their impact on police operations and morale, which was detailed during the arbitration proceeding.
“Given the long, bitter fracture and my belief that you will not have the credibility within the Department to lead the PD out of it, a reset is needed,” Garza wrote.
The city manager’s second reason for Torres’ termination is also directly related to the April 7 ruling.
Torres violated the city’s anti-discrimination policy.
“The City has zero tolerance for discrimination in the workplace,” Garza wrote.
The remaining four reasons included a documented history of repeated violations of city policies; a documented history of counseling, training and disciplinary action for poor management; a failure to improve management despite counseling, training and guidance; and a failure to complete a performance improvement plan.
“Any one of the above grounds supports my recommendation,” Garza said in the letter.
To prove his point, Garza provided the chief examples of what the city manager says were repeated violations and failings.
Those include a March 18, 2020, email to police staff about Doctors Hospital at Renaissance treating coronavirus patients.
That information, Garza says, was false and reached the public, causing fear and uncertainty.
“These were the early days of the pandemic when the public did not know much about COVID-19 and people were scared,” Garza wrote.
Then there was an incident where Torres gave an Edinburg police officer approval to appear in a rap video in uniform while using a patrol unit, which was widely available to the public on YouTube.
Garza also criticized Torres’ role in the city’s Ice Cream Truck effort to increase Census participation.
That campaign included a raffle for people who filled out the Census, and Torres spent many days and hours in the truck personally handing out ice cream during the month-long effort.
“However, you failed to obtain identifying information of persons who should be entered into the raffle. You failed to collect this information yourself while on the truck, you failed to determine whether others were collecting this information, and you failed to build a process to collect this information,” Garza wrote.
Because of that failure, the city could not fulfill its promise to hundreds of people who were told they were eligible for a raffle.
In January, Garza provided the chief a written process improvement plan listing clear deliverables that he required Torres to produce and to have reviewed by Garza before implementation.
Garza asked Torres to create a standard operating procedure for every personnel decision that impacted salary adjustments; to revise and finalize a standard operating procedure for new hires; to create a standard operating procedure for referring cases to Internal Affairs for investigation — with a specific request regarding investigations involving Torres to avoid a conflict of interest — and to develop a quarterly dashboard report of offenses that can be posted on the city’s website and presented to the city council on a regular schedule.
“I requested these deliverables to address specific testimony from the EUPOA arbitration,” Garza wrote, giving Torres 10 days to respond.
Ten days later, Torres responded to Garza, saying he would “present all of this” in a few days because he was going to be out of town.
The city manager said in the letter that he expected the chief to work on the requests during that 10-day period instead of the chief trying to complete all of these tasks in one work day.
“Whatever the case, you ultimately failed to provide requests 3 and 4 (and to this day have not provided these). You did not provide requests 1 and 2 on January 18 as you had said you would. You eventually provided proposed (standard operating procedures), but what you produced was unusable,” Garza wrote.
In sum, the city manager says Torres’ decision-making and process-management abilities have been consistently deficient, despite significant guidance and a specific performance improvement plan.
“But still you have not shown an ability to effectively create, implement, and consistently use object processes and procedures,” the city manager said in the letter.
Now, the matter is out of Garza’s hands.
And on Monday morning, Flores, the judge, could make a ruling that determines Torres’ fate with the city.
The city intends to have that temporary restraining order lifted so it can fire Torres, while his attorney, Klein, will likely argue that it should remain in place until the FBI finishes its investigation into Celedon — the same union president previously targeted by Internal Affairs for an alleged crime that a Hidalgo County grand jury no-billed.