Pct. 4 commissioner Joseph Palacios addresses employee theft allegations

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County Commissioner Joseph Palacios addressed allegations Monday that a precinct employee who is running for a spot on the Edinburg school district used county sandbags to anchor his political campaign signs, calling the accusations politically motivated.

Palacios said Monday his office learned several weeks ago of a “rumor” about Steve Cruz — who serves as his director of operations for Precinct 4 and is married to the commissioner’s cousin — regarding the allegations of misuse of county property.

The rumors, Palacios initially said, prompted his office to refer the issue to the offices of Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez and Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra for further inquiry.

“We dealt with this issue pretty in depth to make sure these rumors were handled,” Palacios said, adding his office had not received any report of wrongdoing from either office.

Sheriff Guerra, however, said Monday afternoon he was not aware of any such inquiry.

“The sheriff’s office has not been contacted by the Precinct 4 commissioner’s office to do an inquiry or an investigation as of yet,” Guerra said, adding he asked his patrol unit and the criminal investigation division about it Monday. “As far as I know, no one has contacted them.”

Palacios later clarified his initial response to The Monitor, saying he had tasked Pepe Caso, the chief administrator for Precinct 4, to handle the matter. Caso worked with the DA’s office through Victor M. Garza of the civil division.

“He clarified it was Victor with the DA’s office,” Palacios said about his chief of staff. “I really didn’t know the disposition (of the inquiry). All I knew was that when people came back there was nothing conclusive.”

The district attorney confirmed Monday evening Caso spoke to Garza about it two weeks ago, seeking legal and administrative advice.

“It was a verbal communication. They told Victor about the situation and he advised them of what they (had) to do in the sense of the administrative (part), but that’s all we had,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t speak or tell you what they’ve done.”

Palacios said “individuals have been questioned,” and his office had not found proof of theft.

“I have no missing inventory. So it’s hard for me to conclude there has been (a) theft,” Palacios said. “It was administratively handled because we did not have any proof of anything other than hearsay. That’s why we’re handling it internally.”

Cruz for his part denounced the allegations and provided The Monitor a copy of a receipt from the Lowe’s hardware store in Edinburg dated July 30 which showed 56 sandbags were purchased for $3.10 a piece for a total of $202.37.

“They’re completely false,” Cruz said about the allegations. “I, myself, have never received or taken a sandbag from the county… I have no need to take sandbags. This is just a political ploy trying to discredit my name and throw mud at my campaign.”

Cruz’s attorney, Rudy Moreno, pointed to a Sept. 15 Facebook post by Patrick Eronini, an outspoken critic of Cruz who has unsuccessfully run for elected office several times.

“In a nutshell, I don’t know where these people are coming up with these allegations,” Moreno said. “All I can say is there was a Facebook post by Patrick (Eronini) that made a direct allegation at Steve. But I guess that’s the beauty of social media.”

Eronini declined an interview Monday, but his Facebook page features a post with about six pictures of what he describes as county-marked sandbags anchoring a political sign for Cruz. The sandbags in the unmarked location bare a similar mark to those found on bags distributed by Precinct 4: an orange spray-painted line.

“It’s just one particular sign they’re alleging, but they’re trying to make it look like it’s multiple signs,” Cruz said about the pictures.

Palacios contended the sandbags his office distributed could very well end up being used to anchor signs as his office has no control over them once they are in the residents’ possession.

“We don’t really have a recovery process,” he said. “And we don’t turn away traffic.”

nlopez@themonitor.com

{{tncms-inline alignment=”center” content=”<p>This story has been updated to correct Pepe Caso’s name as well as his job title.</p>” id=”9019b99b-2f02-4a81-bb47-ebce044bd8a3″ style-type=”highlights” title=”Editor’s Note” type=”relcontent” width=”full”}}

This story has been updated to correct Pepe Caso’s name as well as his job title.