State watchdog agency maintains El Paso DA may have violated penal code over alleged misuse of state funds

El Paso News

Assistant district attorney calls TEC on behalf of anonymous request for review of civil forfeiture fund spending

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – An anonymous requestor abruptly withdrew their inquiry into civil forfeiture spending by the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office with the state’s leading ethics agency during a Thursday morning meeting in Austin.

The Texas Ethics Commission was petitioned to review a summary of facts regarding over $2,600 in civil forfeiture expenses made by El Paso County District Attorney Yvonne Rosales’ administration this year.

It is still unclear who requested a review of the expenses by the DA’s office. But Thursday’s meeting gave insight into where the origin of the request came from.

The eight-person commission maintained a previous summary opinion alleging the purchase and distribution of some items with Rosales’ name prominently labeled on them could be a misuse of government resources.

The items in the review included children’s badges for “junior investigators,” a seal with the DA’s name on it, car magnets, and a logo with a lotus flower encircled with the DA’s name on it. The review also included other items including pens, tote bags and t-shirts.

A children’s badge printed by the DA’s Office.

The opinion does not state that all the items listed in the review would constitute a violation but did point out a few specific items.

“But we note that each logo not only identifies the office but also prominently includes the name of the current occupant of that office,” the summary opinion states. “This type of promotional item would lead one to believe that its purpose ‘was to support the incumbent,’ regardless of the timing, 

Consequently, to use government resources for their creation and distribution would constitute a misuse under section 39.02(a) of the Penal Code.”

The section the TEC cites in its opinion is about “Abuse of Official Capacity,” which is a state jail felony if the value of the use of the thing misused is $2,500 or more but less than $30,000. State jail felonies carry a potential sentence of 180 days or two years in a Texas facility.

“There could be a violation under certain provisions of the penal code but it really depends on the specific facts involved,” the commission’s general counsel said during the meeting. “The requestor presented a number of possible fact patterns to consider and the opinion addresses each of them.”

KTSM 9 News has repeatedly reached out to the district attorney’s office for comment.

The TEC took no action on the opinion during the meeting.

First Assistant District Attorney George Al-Hanna calls-in

The Texas Ethics Commission did not share the identity of the requestor and maintains a policy of confidentiality for individuals who request reviews of governmental policy and ethics.

TEC documents state the requestor is an employee of a “multi-county district attorney’s office.” But a phone call during the TEC’s meeting provided more information on where the inquiry into the expenses may have come from.

At first, first assistant district attorney George Al-Hanna was hesitant to share his name with the commission. He called in to share with the committee why the request for review was being withdrawn. AlHanna is one of the lead attorneys in the DA’s office.

After being told repeatedly by the commissioners that he had to share his name before making a statement, AlHanna stated he was calling on behalf of the requestor.

He was later interrupted by Rogelio Rodriguez, who also stated he was representing the requestor.

“The intent of the communication, right now, is not to give testimony. It was just merely as a sign of respect to this commission to let you know where we were officially asking a withdraw, so we could resubmit at a later time,” Rodriguez said. “It was just so we could gather some facts and be able to present at a later time because the advisory opinion was recently released and there were multiple parties involved in the preparation of the fact pattern.”

Rodriguez claimed the “factual pattern” in the summary opinion did not reflect what was submitted. And, stated the requestor was prepared by an individual who is not an attorney.

He said “some things were misconstrued.”

“As everybody knows, and it was discussed early on, there’s been a lot of media attention, so, there are a lot of parties involved. And, we wanted to resubmit it at a later time,” he said. “So, we just wanted to log in our official request to voluntarily withdraw from this voluntary process at this time. So, we could respectfully resubmit at a later time.”

TEC to issue generic opinion despite withdrawal

Commissioners with the TEC said they intend on issuing a generic opinion over their findings from the review. Commissioner Patrick Mizell said it was a novel scenario that the TEC had not considered before.

“I think we should consider changing the nature of the opinion from one that answers a specific question from a requestor to a generic opinion that answers the questions that are posed,” Mizell said. “If we don’t do that, then we are sort of relying on a rerequest from the requestor and that may or may not occur. And, I do think it’s an important question that needs to be answered. I think that there is conduct below that’s been presented that could arguably be violative of the penal code.”

It is not clear when the TEC will issue it’s statement.

LINKS BELOW ARE TO PREVIOUS KTSM 9 COVERAGE OF THE DA’S OFFICE

For local and breaking news, sports, weather alerts, video and more, download the FREE KTSM 9 News App from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.