NAXIELY LOPEZ-PUENTE AND MOLLY SMITH | STAFF WRITERS
EDINBURG — The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation after more than $147,000 worth of equipment went missing from the county’s Precinct 4 office while former commissioner Joseph Palacios was at its helm, his successor Ellie Torres confirmed via her staff last month.
At the crux of the issue is a single piece of heavy machinery that went missing in 2015 when Palacios’ office borrowed it — at least on paper — during a hurricane recovery effort from the Precinct 1 office, which at the time was under the direction of former commissioner A.C. Cuellar.
But the item went missing somewhere along the way.
Torres declined to comment on the open investigation, which her staff characterized as criminal in nature.
Palacios, however, said Wednesday his office initiated the “civil process” last year in order to remove the missing equipment from a master list of assets his office managed.
“That is the only legal way that the precinct can remove an asset off the inventory list,” he said.
Every time a change in administration occurs, the Hidalgo County auditor’s office, in conjunction with the purchasing department, performs a thorough audit of the assets, or equipment, maintained by the respective department. As such, one was performed for Precinct 4 after Torres unseated Palacios in the March 2018 Primary. She did not face a Republican opponent in November’s general election.
And it was through the audit that officials discovered the missing piece of heavy machinery, which Palacios described as an attachment to a backhoe.
“It was never a criminal investigation,” Palacios said. “This is the civil process that happened to ensure that (it was removed from the list). There was nothing criminally — to anybody. That’s why the matter was closed.”
Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra, however, confirmed Friday the issue remains under investigation. Guerra declined to give any further information other than noting his expectation to reach a conclusion in the near future.
The audit’s objective was to “evaluate the accuracy and completeness” of the asset list maintained by the purchasing department on behalf of Precinct 4, according to a letter Hidalgo County Auditor Maria Arcilia Duran sent to Palacios on Dec. 20.
The Monitor obtained a redacted copy of the correspondence in early January, which detailed the audit findings, and is awaiting an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s Office because the county declined to provide all other documents related to the audit.
“As an elected official, (Palacios) is inherently responsible for ensuring that county assets in the custody of the Precinct No. 4 Office are properly accounted, safeguarded and disposed,” Duran wrote in her letter.
Those responsibilities include: verifying receipts of all equipment purchased or assigned to the precinct; ensuring it is properly tagged; conducting periodic physical inventories; ensuring assets are only used for county purposes; filing police reports when equipment is lost or stolen; keeping track of assets when they are transferred to other departments; and documenting when equipment is taken off county premises, including off-site repairs.
As of October 2018, the Precinct 4 office had 1,058 assets valued at approximately $12.3 million, according to Duran’s letter.
When the audit was finished, Duran’s office determined 67 of those assets, valued at $147,728.91, were missing and could not be accounted for.
One of those missing items was the backhoe attachment, Palacios said, estimating its value accounted for about 90 percent of the total amount of missing items, which also included two John Deere shredders, two Honda generators, five chainsaws and a portable toilet, among others.
“I was in office for eight years, so it’s understandable that weed eaters and lawnmowers — they’re not going to last forever,” Palacios said. “I think at the end of the day, the amount (of missing equipment) was somewhere around the $8,000 mark, which was remarkable for me to know that there weren’t a lot of items (missing), which is good.”
As described in the audit, a paper trail is created every time equipment is moved from one department to another. Palacios said that’s where the issue stems: His staff “initiated” the paperwork to borrow the attachment, but didn’t “recover,” or physically claim it.
“The document of the transfer was dated right in the peak of the storm response in 2015,” Palacios said. “Why the road crews did not retrieve the item (from Precinct 1) … I have no idea.
“Maybe they had no use for it?”
Emergency management involving storms can be rather hectic, he said, and may have attributed to the confusion over its possession.
“You know how hurricanes happen — everybody gets moving,” the former commissioner said. “All sorts of entities respond.”
Cuellar, the former commissioner, could not recall the equipment or its exchange when reached via phone earlier this week. He said his office also underwent an audit, but could not remember its findings.
Sheriff’s deputies interviewed a number of employees from the Precinct 4 office, Palacios said.
“All employees who handled the equipment were interviewed,” he said. “They interviewed every field employee, every crew leader, every department head.”
Palacios also noted that more than 120 employees have access to the equipment on a daily basis as they carry out the day-to-day maintenance and general operations.
“We don’t know. We don’t have the asset on hand,” he said. “All I know is that we completed our process, we had our sheriff’s office (involved)… and we’re pretty much closed with it already.”