EDINBURG — The police chief here fought back against accusations of retaliation last week, defending a recent round of terminations and his perceived inaction against one of his assistant chiefs who sparked a Texas Rangers investigation.
Last month, Edinburg Police Chief Cesar Torres fired “three or four” police department employees who either broke policy or the law, he said.
The staffing changes were seen as a form of retaliation by some of his officers, who contacted The Monitor about it earlier this month. Torres, however, dismissed the accusations in an interview last week, saying he was only doing his job.
“Nothing that is being done at the police department on my behalf has got anything to do with politics — nothing,” he said. “It’s all based on violations of policy and violations of the law.”
Perhaps the most notable of those terminations, was that of officer Armando Celedon, former president of the Edinburg United Police Officers Association and a 16-year veteran of the department.
Torres fired Celedon July 24 after an internal investigation revealed he allegedly told a woman she could forge her husband’s signature on a municipal court document. The woman was trying to pay her husband’s citation, but couldn’t do so without his signed authorization.
A week after his termination, Edinburg Municipal Judge Armando Guerra arraigned Celedon on charges of official oppression and tampering with a government record.
Celedon’s arrest shocked some of his former colleagues, who told The Monitor they believed he was being targeted because of his involvement in an investigation against Assistant Police Chief Jay Hernandez, who was accused of making unauthorized purchases with the police union’s credit card after serving as its board president.
No one is contesting the fact that Hernandez purchased eight Jennifer Lopez concert tickets with the association’s card, four of which were for personal use. The question at the heart of the issue is whether he was authorized to make a personal purchase with the union’s card, and the answer depends on who you ask.
It’s important to note that the tickets were not purchased with taxpayer funds. Instead, the association’s credit card is paid by the union’s membership fees and the fundraisers its officers host.
Torres told The Monitor last week that Hernandez was, in fact, authorized to purchase eight tickets, including the four personal ones. But Celedon, then president of the union, said otherwise in a May 20 letter he sent to the chief.
“When he purchased the tickets, evidently, he had permission from the board, and the money was there,” Torres said about Hernandez. “It was never missing or lost. The money was there with the tickets.”
The chief knows this because the department “immediately launched an administrative investigation, and the complaint was not sustained on his actions regarding buying the tickets,” he said.
“They found that there was no policy violation — period,” Torres said about the internal affairs investigation. “If there was one, I guarantee you that action would have been taken against the assistant chief, without a doubt, because we want to be transparent. We want to be fair.”
The administrative investigation into Hernandez’s actions was closed July 2 and did not warrant any disciplinary action, Torres said.
He declined to release the file without a formal request, which The Monitor subsequently filed last week. Torres, however, did release a copy of the letter Celedon sent him, highlighting a portion of the document where Celedon, himself, wrote that he didn’t believe Hernandez committed a crime.
Texas Rangers aren’t so sure. They are currently investigating the case, though they declined to name any suspects.
Torres said last week his department hadn’t been notified about any investigation.
“Negative. No,” he replied when asked.
And even if his department were to receive official word of an investigation against his assistant chief, Torres doubted it would change his decisions.
“First of all, we’ve done internal investigations and it was not sustained, so the answer is no,” he said.
Hernandez declined to comment when reached Monday.
“The Rangers are still doing their thing,” he said. “I think it’s better for the integrity of the case that I don’t say anything.”
Celedon has declined to comment on multiple occasions, as have his attorneys. But perhaps the best source of information on his behalf comes from the letter he sent Torres, which the chief released last week.
In his letter, Celedon documented three meetings between May 10 and May 17.
MAY 10 MEETING
The association board met to discuss the union’s finances.
“During the meeting, it was discovered that there was unapproved spending from the union account by Assistant Chief Jay Hernandez,” Celedon wrote.
That same day, Celedon met with Hernandez and confronted him with the information.
“I advised him that what he did was very unethical and he asked how it was unethical,” the letter stated. “I advised Assistant Chief Hernandez that he used our union account to purchase 4 tickets for personal gain.”
Hernandez responded by telling Celedon he had the money.
The letter doesn’t indicate what happened afterward, instead, it goes on to say that Edinburg investigator Gabriel Vela “also confronted” Celedon, and that Celedon essentially told him the same thing he told the assistant chief: it was unethical to purchase the personal tickets.
Six days later, the association held a special meeting to discuss three issues, including the purchase of the tickets.
MAY 16 MEETING
Unlike the May 10 meeting that only included association board members, the May 16 meeting involved everyone, or at least those members in attendance. Hernandez was not one of them, so members were not able to hear from him.
Officers, however, were able to hear from Vela, a board member who said he gave Hernandez permission to use the card for the four extra tickets, Celedon wrote.
Vela also said he texted union vice president Jaime Urias about it and that Urias had also approved the purchase, according to Celedon’s letter.
But when Celedon, then president of the union, asked Urias why he hadn’t told him about the purchase, Urias “did not answer,” Celedon wrote.
Hernandez was also no longer president of the union when he used its credit card to purchase the tickets, and therefore “was not allowed to use the union’s debit card,” Celedon wrote.
Members ultimately voted to have an outside agency investigate the matter.
MAY 17 MEETING
The day after that meeting, Celedon met with the police chief and Hernandez in Torres’ office.
“Chief Torres stated that all investigations would go through him,” Celedon wrote.
Torres then asked Celedon if he thought Hernandez had committed a criminal act.
“I advised Chief Torres that what Assistant Chief Hernandez (did) was very unethical and in my opinion did not believe it was criminal,” Celedon wrote.
Torres argued last week that Celedon’s investigation, termination and subsequent arrest had nothing to do with Hernandez.
“First of all, he did not open up any investigation to begin with,” the chief said about Celedon. “The issue with officer Celedon had to do with a complaint that was filed from the municipal court on allegations of misconduct on his behalf.”
And the other firings are not connected either, he said.
“That’s got nothing to do with this. That’s got to do with personnel issues — people who violate policies or even the law,” he said. “But we do owe it to the community to do the right thing, follow policies, follow the rules, follow the law. It’s part of our job. And if we can’t police ourselves, how can we police the outside world? We can’t.”
The chief said he sees it as his responsibility to enforce policy.
“So all I’m doing is holding people accountable — (correcting) things that people have been doing for years. Except in the past, there was no accountability in certain issues,” he said. “There was accountability on only certain officers and not other officers, and I’m being across the board.”
And as far as favoritism is concerned, Torres said he treats everyone equally.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s an administrative assistant or an assistant to the chief,” he said. “If they’re violating policies or they’re violating the law, they’re going to be held accountable — period.