Donna requests dismissal of free speech lawsuit

The attorney representing a group of current and former Donna city leaders wants a lawsuit against them thrown out due to lack of evidence to support former Public Works Director Juan Francisco De Los Rios’ claim that he was demoted for speaking about corruption.

In the lawsuit, De Los Rios claims city administration demoted and suspended him as a vendetta for speaking about “corrupt” elected officials — a violation of his right to free speech protected by the First Amendment.

J. Arnold Aguilar — the attorney representing the city of Donna, on behalf of former Councilman Simon Sauceda, former Councilwoman Sonia Gallegos, current Councilwoman Cathy Alvarado, former Mayor David Simmons, former Assistant City Manager Josue Garcia and former interim City Manager Ernesto Silva — filed a motion for a summary judgment Friday, days after deposing De Los Rios.

In 2016, Garcia and then Human Resources Director David Vasquez demoted De Los Rios from his supervisory position and suspended him for 30 days. A written complaint by a citizen prompted an investigation into De Los Rios, who they discovered had been constructing a barbecue pit with city property while on the job, a violation of the city’s personnel policy and grounds for termination, according to court records.

De Los Rios, however, said the barbecue pit stored and constructed with city property was not for “personal use,” but rather a “donation to the city” to be used at the annual Chisholm Trail Festival, according to a transcript of his deposition.

De Los Rios said he was suspended by Vasquez and Garcia, who were both under the direction of Silva — the interim city manager in 2016, according to the deposition transcript.

De Los Rios was supposed to return to work following the 30-day suspension that was reduced to 10-days, but never did because of a “demand letter” his attorney sent to the city, according to the transcript. He was then fired for not showing up — another violation of city policy.

City administration also alleged De Los Rios, who had been employed by the city since 1985, was using a city warehouse as a personal storage facility, according to court documents.

De Los Rios, though, claims he was actually demoted from his position as public works director because he spoke about a “corrupt” agreement between Sauceda, Gallegos, Alvarado, Simmons and Area Design & Construction LLC, which violated his right to free speech, according to the lawsuit filed in August 2016.

The lawsuit claims a representative from the company promised to pay the slate of candidates “at least $110,000” in exchange for a city contract “worth millions of dollars” in 2014.

Campaign finance reports show their campaign contributions “totaled only $78,892.01,” less than the alleged bribe amount, according to court records.

“Since 2015, I have earned approximately $65,000 per year, and I could not afford to contribute over $100,000 to any political campaign or to finance or develop a million-dollar construction project,” Marcelino Cantu, the owner of Area Design & Construction LLC, said in a sworn statement submitted to the court.

Cantu also said he “never paid any monies” to any of the defendants, and only worked on “small construction projects for the city of Donna, including manhole maintenance and repairs, lowering a corner of a sidewalk and repairing a large pothole in an alley.”

Sauceda, Simmons, Gallegos and Alvarado also signed sworn affidavits, which said they “never received any campaign or other payment” from Area Design and Construction.

Aguilar questioned De Los Rios on several topics during the deposition this month, ranging from his lack of first-hand knowledge of money being handed over to the then-candidates to the city’s personnel policy.

De Los Rios revealed in the deposition that he didn’t personally “see any money exchanged at all.”

Aguilar requested the lawsuit be dismissed in 2016, but it was denied then due to lack of necessary information.

De Los Rios sued for $2 million for lost earnings, loss of earning capacity, damage of reputation, mental anguish and loss of benefits.

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane denied the parties’ request to extend discovery in the case during a status conference hearing earlier this month.

De Los Rios “has no evidence to establish” the “rumor” about the alleged bribe, and the evidence instead revealed “no such payment or agreement was ever made,” according to the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Attorneys representing De Los Rios couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the motion for a summary judgment.

The suit could head to trial, if the motion is denied, in June.

cgarcia@themonitor.com