City Attorney Drops Ethics Complaints Against Council Members

El Paso News
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El Paso City Attorney Sylvia Borunda Firth announced that she is dismissing the ethics complaints filed against City Council Representatives Lily Limon, Jim Tolbert, Cortney Niland, Peter Svarzbein and Mayor Oscar Leeser by two separate El Paso citizens in late December.

NewsChannel 9 spoke with Attorney Bill Aleshire with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas last week who said that Borunda Firth has little jurisdiction over the alleged violation because it involves a state law. He also said that Borunda Firth could possibly have a conflict of interest due to the fact that she is an employee of the city, tasked with advising Council on legal matters.

The dropping of the charges comes just one day before the El Paso City Ethics Review Commission was set to meet to discuss several violations filed against council members.

On Friday, the Texas Rangers confirmed that they are investigating the complaints.

All of these allegations center around a closed-door meeting that happened back on Friday December 16, 2016 between Leeser, Limon, Tolbert, Niland, Svarzbein, members of the El Paso County Historical Commission and members from the Paso Del Sur organization which represent residents of the Duranguito neighborhood.

Video surveillance obtained by NewsChannel 9 shows that at no time during the meeting were all council members present in the same room. Instead, some came and went within the course of the hour. The issue in question is whether the council members met in a possible rolling quorum to avoid notifying the public of this meeting.

In this case, that would mean that five or more City council members, including the Mayor, would have had to conspire to enter and exit the meeting in order to avoid the appearance of an actual quorum where all are present at the same time.

Friday, when District Attorney Jaime Esparza’s office referred an investigation to the Texas Rangers’ office, additional questions surfaced regarding Esparza’s relationship with City Council Representative Lily Limon.

March 17, 2015, Limon appointed Esparza as a sub-committee chair for the Hispanic Cultural Center Subcommittee (now known as the Mexican American Cultural Center). That committee is tasked with giving recommendations to El Paso City Council on the Cultural Heritage Center, a $6 million bond allocation project that is a smaller part of the large $228 million bond voted and approved by El Paso voters in 2012.

When NewsChannel 9 contacted Esparza’s office Monday afternoon, we were advised that he resigned from his position on the subcommittee effective immediately “in an abundance of caution.”  Despite having resigned from the subcommittee for the Mexican American Cultural Center, he remains on the Mexican American Cultural Institute (MACI) which is the fundraising arm of the Center.

According to a member of the MACI who asked not the be identified by NewsChannel 9, it is the true arm that runs the meetings involving the bond recommendations. Our investigation shows that the Mexican American Cultural sub-committee hasn’t met since April 2016, though a meeting is scheduled for this coming Wednesday.

You can read Esparza’s full resignation statement below:

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