Corruption indictment doesn't keep Gilbert Sanchez from filing ethics complaint against Escobar
by David Crowder
Posted on September 2, 2009
El Paso District Clerk Gilbert Sanchez has kept a low political profile since being indicted on public corruption charges in June. That changed Tuesday when he filed an ethics complaint against county Commissioner Veronica Escobar.
The complaint aims at Escobar’s representation by lawyer John Wenke at hearings before the county’s ethics board in July and to the fact that she has not said whether Wenke was paid or donated his services.
Sanchez’s complaint doesn’t hit Escobar with specific allegations of unethical behavior or ethics code violations. Rather, it seems to ask if she committed an unspecified violation in the past or might in the future.
Asking Sanchez to explain it didn’t clear things up, but what is unusual about Sanchez's complaint is the fact it stems from a complaint against Escobar that didn't involve him and that the county ethics board dismissed as frivolous in July.
An unsigned version of his ethics complaint dated Aug. 30 popped up Tuesday morning on the website of attorney Theresa Caballero. His signed complaint was filed Tuesday morning.
Normally, ethics complains are kept confidential until a public hearing is conducted, if the reaches the hearing stage. But the person who files the complaint or the person against whom it is filed is always free to discuss it.
But that isn’t what happened, Sanchez said.
“Everything is discombobulated,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “I did not give permission to Theresa to publish it.
“She’s not my lawyer. I’ve been talking with Stuart (Leeds), and I have been telling him this is something I have wanted to do.”
Sanchez suggested Leeds had an advance copy of the complaint. Asked how Caballero obtained it, Gilbert said, “I guess they handed it to each other.”
Gilbert states in his complaint that Wenke “has a history of litigating against the county of El Paso and the city of El Paso.”
“Many of these representations have yielded Mr. Wenke great wealth in the numerous victories against insurance companies and governmental agencies,” Sanchez wrote.
From there, Sanchez complaint goes into a long, rambling statement, noting that Escobar and her husband, an assistant U.S. attorney, may be friends with Wenke, “which raises a question of possible conflict because the work being provided was done for free or as a gift.”
He states that Escobar should have filed an affidavit of possible conflicts as a decision maker, “or the fact that Mr. Wenke may now or within sometime in the near future have legal matters in front of the commissioner which she will have to make a settlement decision.”
Sanchez could not cite a provision of the county’s ethics code that would require anyone to file a sworn statement concerning a potential conflict of interest or one that has not arisen, however.
He continues, “Thus, it was not reported as required which raises questions as to the possible tic for tat method of payment for his legal services to the commissioner which may place her in a difficult situation when it comes to legal matters that Commissioner Escobar may have to vote on any possible settlement offers.
“Not to mention issues about gifts and/or contributions to her campaign, be it as in-kind or direct financial contribution which was not reported per Texas law and or placed on Commissioners Court for disclosing it’s (sic) acceptance.”
Escobar initially refused to say whether she had paid or intended to pay for the services Wenke provided.
“Mr. Wenke defended me in my personal capacity, not my capacity as a county commissioner, so I don’t know what I am required to disclose,” she said.
However, the ethics complaint that lawyers Theresa Caballero and Stuart Leeds filed against Escobar in July did accuse her of misusing her position as a county commissioner.
A few minutes later, Escobar called back and she would answer all of Newspaper Tree’s questions concerning Wenke.
Wenke, she said, is a longtime family friend whom she asked to represent her at an ethics board hearing. He offered to serve as her lawyer for free, she said.
“He has been a friend of mine and my husband’s for well over a decade, and he did this pro bono for me,” she said. “He is not a vendor. He does not have any pending business before the county that I know of.
“If there were any settlements where John represented the plaintiff, I’m not aware of them.”
The county attorney’s office reported that the last time county Commissioners Court approved a settlement in a case involving Wenke was in March 2007.
Escobar had been in office for three months at the time and said Wenke had never represented her before July of this year.
She said his services would not have to be reported as an in-kind political contribution because they had nothing to do with her election campaign. The current campaign finance reporting period does not end until Dec. 31, and contributions would not have to be reported until Jan. 15.
And, since Wenke was a friend of hers before she was elected, Escobar said she doesn’t think she would have to report his services as a gift under the county’s ethics code.
Even if she does, the report would not be due until next April, she said.
But just to avoid any questions, she said she may ask Wenke to bill her for his services and pay him.
Escobar said she decided she needed legal representation after representing herself at a July 1 initial hearing before the El Paso County Board of Ethics concerning the complaint that Caballero and Leeds had filed against her.
Wenke represented her at the next hearing on July 29.
At the time, Caballero and Leeds also were defending County Judge Anthony Cobos against an ethics complaint that city Rep. Emma Acosta filed against him. They were also Cobos’ lawyers in a suit he filed against the ethics board and the county to stop hearings in the Acosta’s case.
A visiting judge determined that Cobos should have filed suit against the county instead of the ethics board, and rather than refilling the case, Cobos asked that the case be dismissed.
Afterward, Caballero and Leeds filed a complaint against Escobar because she had asked the county attorney’s office if Cobos could be required to repay the county’s legal expenses for defending the lawsuit. When told the county could not recover legal fees, Escobar asked for a compilation of the county’s legal costs in Cobos’ lawsuit.
That was the focus of the complaint against Escobar, which the ethics board dismissed as frivolous.
The ethics board dismissed Acosta’s complaint against Cobos as well.
* * *
To reach David Crowder, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 351-0605, ext. 30, or 630-6622.
John Wenke represeted Commissioner Veronica Escobar at July 29 hearing before the county ethics board
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