EDINBURG — City Manager Juan Guerra said when he verbally reprimanded spokesperson Cary Zayas for her behavior at Mayor Richard Molina’s arraignment proceedings last month, he didn’t realize she had a potential conflict of interest tied to the illegal voting case in which the mayor and his wife have been charged.
The reprimand came April 29, four days after Zayas physically shielded the mayor and wife Dalia Molina from the media outside Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Jerry Muñoz’s courtroom, where the Molinas had just been charged with illegal voting.
According to court documents reported in June 2018, Zayas’ sister, Robin Zayas, registered Francisco Tamez Jr., who is one of the 19 arrested in the same illegal voting case in which the Molinas are entangled.
Guerra, though saying he was initially unaware of Zayas’ ties to the case, appeared unconvinced that Zayas’ sister’s connection posed a conflict of interest.
“No one told me that Cary, or Cary’s family, was involved in any which-way with voter fraud,” he said, claiming the origins of a potential conflict of interest stemmed from “silly websites” to “gain clicks and likes.”
Guerra also addressed Zayas’ actions outside the courtroom on April 25, when she physically blocked journalists from photographing the Molinas by pressing her body up against the state troopers’ units that the mayoral couple occupied.
“Sometimes emotions take place when you work with someone so closely,” he said. “You develop a professional relationship that is outside of being black and white.”
According to the reprimand, Zayas also antagonized journalists and did not exercise professionalism or neutrality.
Guerra, however, said it was unrealistic for him to look through court documents of all his employees in search of potential conflicts, and that his main focus since his hiring has been to gauge how well the more than 1,000 city employees are working for the taxpayers.
“Maybe that makes me naive or it’s an opportunity for me to grow professionally,” he said, echoing language in Zayas’ reprimand, “but ultimately the only thing I care about is what is the work productivity of that employee. Is it efficient; is it within budget; is it legal?
“Outside of that, there are too many conflicts in a human being to worry about every single thing.”
By his metrics of employee performance, Zayas has done a good job for the city.
Zayas, meanwhile, denied having any existing conflicts of interest.
“There is no potential conflict nor does it affect my work for the City,” she said in a text message exchange Friday. “We carry on with business as usual.”
Why was she there?
Zayas’ reprimand appears to shed light on why she accompanied the mayor and his wife in their surrender to state authorities and subsequent arraignment proceedings.
The city’s Employee Disciplinary Action form, signed by Guerra, indicates Zayas’ role there “was to be a neutral observant in order to gather information concerning our Mayor and answer any questions in a professional, cordial and neutral manner.”
But the reprimand didn’t include language about any potential conflicts of interest, which would be Zayas’ responsibility to declare to the city, nor were there citations from the city Code of Ethics, which states that “no officer or employee shall use the prestige or power of their office or employment for their private gain or for the private gain of another.”
Despite dismissing a potential conflict of interest, Guerra said that had he been aware of Zayas’ sister’s connection to the case, he would have discussed it with the city’s spokeswoman to determine “whether or not she can be professionally neutral in this situation.”
He went on to say that this “doesn’t mean she couldn’t go” to the Molinas’ arraignment proceedings, because he expects “professionals to be professionals, even if there are personal things out there.”
Guerra also said that having a city employee present at the arraignment was “prudent” to learn about Molina’s charges, bond, release, etc. He stopped short of saying he allowed Zayas to be there, but said he was “aware” and had “no issue” with her presence at the proceedings.
The city wanted “up-to-date information,” he continued. “I’m assuming the public and the media would want to know.”
Zayas’ attendance was also meant to counteract his perceived distrust of the media, he said.
“Sadly, the state of some of the media’s agenda out there, we can’t really rely 100%, depending on the who the media source is,” Guerra said.
The details that have been subsequently released by the city included statements Zayas made after the arraignment, and a half-minute video in which Molina proclaims his innocence.
Zayas said city resources were not used for Molina’s video. However, it was distributed from her city email and hosted on that same account’s Google Drive. Metadata from the video shows it’s connected to Frank Morris of Brownsville, who is related to Zayas through marriage.
The city’s role
When pressed about why the city hasn’t made any statement about the mayor’s arrest apart from individual remarks from Molina and Zayas, Guerra said people might have a misunderstanding about Edinburg.
“What the mayor and council do is representative of the 100,000 people in Edinburg,” he said. “The job of administration is not to create policy; it’s to implement the policy of the will of the voters.
“The city is the mayor.”
Guerra appeared to defend the mayor, comparing his significant margin of victory over former Mayor Richard Garcia in the 2017 mayoral election to the number of illegal voting accusations.
Molina won by 1,240 votes and 19 people have been arrested in connection to the case thus far. Though, it’s impossible to know who the accused voted for.
Guerra also said illegal voting does not fall under the city manager’s purview.
“It’s what they do on their personal time,” he said of the accused.
“You can take a lot of things to a grand jury and get an indictment,” Guerra added, noting the U.S. judicial system considers suspects of any crime innocent until proven guilty.
Asked whether Molina’s legal troubles have an impact on the city, Guerra said yes and no.
“Is there an effect to having an indicted mayor? Obviously there’s an affect. It’s a no-brainer,” he said, citing bad publicity. “But does it affect the operations of the city of Edinburg? Not at all.”
Monitor staff writer Naxiely Lopez-Puente contributed to this report.