Lawsuits accuse Edinburg mayor, councilmen of political retaliation

BY NAXIELY LOPEZ-PUENTE AND DANIEL A. FLORES | STAFF WRITERS

EDINBURG — The mayor and his political allies conspired to fire city employees and replace them with campaign supporters after gaining control of the council, according to court documents filed in two wrongful termination lawsuits.

Former city spokeswoman Irma Garza and former municipal court clerk Maribel Velasquez filed similar claims in federal court against the city and four councilmembers. They allege the “Molina Faction” — comprised of Mayor Richard Molina, Mayor Pro-Tem David Torres, and council members Jorge Salinas and Gilbert Enriquez — targeted their employment because of their close relationships with the faction’s political opponents.

All four declined to comment due to pending litigation.

Both were longtime employees who had never received negative marks, their attorney David Flores wrote in separate court filings. And they were both fired at the beginning of 2018, about three or four months after Molina and his allies won the November 2017 municipal election.

Garza’s lawsuit, which was filed a year ago, alleges the Molina faction awarded her position to Cary Zayas, the current Edinburg spokeswoman, after Zayas and her sister created a media company to promote the Molina campaign. It also alleges the faction had a list of employees they wanted out of the city — most of which are no longer employed there.

Cary Zayas also declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Velasquez alleges she was fired because she refused to profess her loyalty to the faction and believes her post was awarded to Celine Pardo, the current municipal court administrator who was previously employed by the mayor pro-tem’s brother. Pardo is also now entangled in what some have described as a case of political retaliation at the Edinburg Police Department.

The faction “set about on a campaign to reward those employees who were related to the new board majority and those who had openly supported their faction,” while “retaliating” against those who didn’t, the suits allege.

PUSH FOR A NEW DIRECTION

Richard Hinojosa

Garza’s case now includes excerpts of sworn depositions taken from two former top level employees — former city manager Richard Hinojosa and former city secretary Myra Garza. Both appear to back the plaintiffs’ claims that the Molina faction had their targets set on some top-level employees.

Hinojosa testified in an April deposition that he got the impression that three of the four councilmen named in the suit — Molina, Salinas and Enriquez — directed him to fire Irma Garza presumably because of her ties to former mayor Richard Garcia.

“The mayor knew, or was aware that Irma had a good working relationship with the previous mayor,” Hinojosa said about Molina. “That concerned him.”

The elected officials began talking to the former city manager about Irma Garza’s post shortly after they took office in 2017.

“(Salinas) was saying that the council was looking to change how we did things, as far as public relations and PR and how we would move forward… and he had concerns that the department… needed some change,” Hinojosa said. “In (the mayor’s) case, he was telling me that, you know, what we were doing with the department was more TV type reporting and all that, and he…wanted to do more social media… and that he thought the department should be doing more of that.”

When Flores, the attorney who directed the depositions, asked Hinojosa if he thought Salinas was directing him to terminate Garza, Hinojosa replied, “I don’t know if he used the word terminate, but… my impression was that he wanted her removed.”

Hinojosa also got that impression from Enriquez and Molina.

And despite telling the elected officials he would talk to Irma Garza about the new direction they wanted to take, Hinojosa testified he had concerns about the situation because elected officials should not be interfering in personnel issues.

“It was not appropriate,” he said, later adding he spoke with then city attorney Ric Gonzalez about his concerns.

“I advised the city attorney at that time that I was approached and told him he needed to visit with the mayor and city council — that they should not be getting involved in personnel issues.”

THE LIST

Edinburg City Secretary Myra Garza is seen in her office in June 2017 in Edinburg.

Former city secretary Myra Garza believes she was on the list of employees the new majority wanted out.

“I did hear about a list, although I never saw it and I’m not sure where that comment originated from,” Myra Garza testified in her deposition.

Still, she said, there were at least eight other names on that list: Irma Garza, the former city spokeswoman, Hinojosa, the former city manager, Ascencion Alonzo, the former finance director, Leo Gonzales, the former IT director, Ponciano Longoria, the former engineering director, Sonia Marroquin, a former assistant city manager, Velasquez, the former court clerk and fire Chief Shawn Snyder, the only one on the alleged list that still works at the city, according to the list Mayra Garza provided in her deposition.

Myra Garza left her post shortly after the new administration took over, but began working with them in her new position as the director of business operations and marketing at the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation. That stint lasted about six months, ending in February, when Weslaco hired her as its new city secretary.

Myra Garza said she got the impression the Edinburg council wanted her out in part because “of the list that was floating around” and because employees who worked under her essentially asked what was going to happen to her employment with the city, she said.

“I did speak to Jorge Salinas,” she said. “I asked him point blank, ‘Am I on that list?”

It’s unclear if and what Salinas responded because the deposition excerpt that was filed in federal court makes no further mention of the conversation between them.

Z DIGITAL MEDIA

Irma Garza’s attorney also deposed Robin Zayas, Cary Zayas’ sister, who testified the mayor and the former Channel 5 anchor conspired months before the election to give Cary Zayas the post.

“There was talk of her working for the city when we first started Z Digital (Media), should Molina win the election,” Robin Zayas wrote in a court filing. “Cary was interested in leaving (Channel) 5 for the city job.”

The alleged scheme involved the creation of Z Digital Media company, which was tied to both sisters and ran social media accounts for the Molina campaign.

According to Cary Zayas’ city of Edinburg job application, she began serving as a partner in Z Digital Media since 2013. This gave her nearly five years of experience in public relations, writing speeches and managing social media accounts, she wrote when applying for the job.

That information, however, is contrary to what Robin Zayas told lawyers during sworn testimony. She said they created the entity at Molina’s request to represent his campaign, and public information from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office shows Z Digital Media LLC was created July 11, 2017.

Campaign finance reports for Molina indicate he paid Z Digital Media $1,440 in August 2017 for an advertising and consulting expense, and $816.25 in October 2017 for advertising.

KRGV would not comment on the fact that Cary Zayas worked for both the Molina campaign and the TV station simultaneously for months in 2017.

Robin Zayas initially appeared apprehensive to talk about her sister’s role in the company during her deposition in April, and a few weeks later, she ultimately submitted written changes to her testimony, saying she “was extremely nervous and afraid” to talk about her sister during the initial proceeding.

Robin Zayas said she had no prior experience working on promoting political campaigns and would often turn to her sister for guidance.

But in her amended testimony, Robin Zayas expanded on her sister’s role, which she said included access to the business account, keeping track of hours worked and charging clients.

Cary Zayas, her sister said, spent some of the company’s money on “back to school shopping” for her kids.

The city spokeswoman also edited text, photos and videos for the Molina campaign.

Cary Zayas was officially hired at the city March 26, 2018, and the position’s salary was increased from $72,848.47 to $95,000. On April 5, she received a $10,000 pay pump and was reprimanded that same month for physically blocking media from taking photos and video of the mayor and his wife after they were arraigned on felony illegal voting charges.

Edinburg Public Information Officer Cary Zayas attempts to shield Dalia Molina, wife of Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina, from the media after they were both arraigned on illegal voting charges Thursday, April 25, 2019, in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

VELASQUEZ

The former court clerk worked at the city for more than two decades. She began as a clerk and typist in 1996 and was promoted various times until 2002, when the council at that time appointed her as the court clerk. She served in that capacity for 16 years until March 2018, when she was fired.

Velasquez believes the Molina faction targeted her because of her close relationship with longtime municipal judge Toribio “Terry” Palacios.

Palacios is “a member of a very well-known family and political force in the city of Edinburg,” her suit states, adding that “it is common knowledge that Terry Palacios and his family are political rivals” of the Molina faction.

In her suit, Velasquez recounts an instance in August 2015 in which Molina allegedly contacted her and “sought a declaration of political loyalty from her.”

At that point, the council, of which Molina was a member, had just reappointed her for another three-year term.

“Believing the request to be inappropriate, Ms. Velasquez responded that her loyalty was to the city of Edinburg and its constituents,” according to Velasquez’s filing.

After she was terminated, the council appointed Pardo to the post. Pardo made headlines earlier this month after news broke that a complaint she filed against Edinburg police officer Armando Celedon led to his termination and subsequent arrest.

Celedon’s supporters have since argued that his termination and charges stem from another alleged round of political retaliation, but the police chief has denied those allegations and defended the actions taken against Celedon. Sources indicate that case will also lead to yet another lawsuit against the city.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling for Celine Pardo.