A judge temporarily suspended Rio Grande City school board trustee Daniel J. Garcia from his position Monday, pending a trial on whether the removal will be permanent.
Visiting state Judge David Stith signed the order, making the suspension effective immediately. A trial date for the case has yet to be set.
“Obviously, I disagree with his ruling but both Danny and I respect his ruling,” Garcia’s attorney, Gocha Ramirez said Monday afternoon. “We would have preferred that he had a hearing and we would have preferred that we be allowed to put on evidence so that he could have heard that there was not enough evidence to support a temporary suspension, but he chose not to, which is within his discretion, and both Danny and myself respect his decision.”
The signed order states that the court found there was prima facie evidence — or evidence that on first impression establishes a fact unless proven otherwise — “that the allegations in the petition are true and temporarily suspends the Defendant from performing the duties of the office pending Defendant’s trial.”
Ramirez said he didn’t get the impression that the judge would appoint a temporary replacement for Garcia, as the state had requested, but couldn’t say for certain.
“I don’t expect that he’s going to do that, but we’ll just have to wait and see,” Ramirez said. “There’s nothing in the order that hints that he’s going to somehow make a temporary replacement.”
Starr County Attorney Victor Canales, who is representing the state in this case, said he agreed with that assessment, believing the judge would not appoint someone new to the board.
Of the order itself, Canales praised the decision.
“I believe the judge ruled in a way that is fair for the taxpayers and the children of the Rio Grande City Independent School District,” he said, “giving them a voice that has, up to now, been silenced.”
The removal proceedings for Garcia stem from a petition that was filed in May by a former school district employee who, himself, was arrested on attempted bribery in 2017.
The former employee, Ricardo Lopez, alleged that Garcia orchestrated the bribery attempt and alleged that Garcia requested bribes from school district employees in exchange for pay raises or promotions.
However, Garcia has not been charged in connection with those allegations.
In the petition, Lopez also cited an April federal indictment filed against Garcia as part of the basis for his removal from the school board.
The federal indictment stems from an investigation into an alleged bribery scheme surrounding the city of Weslaco’s water treatment facilities.
Garcia pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The decision comes a few weeks after the parties for Garcia and the state submitted their arguments for their respective sides.
In the defense’s brief, submitted Oct. 31, Ramirez argued that allegations in the federal indictment did not constitute incompetence or official misconduct – the bases for the petition. On the allegations that Garcia abused his position on the board for bribes, Ramirez argued that the allegations are vague and don’t meet the specificity requirements outlined in the Texas Local Government Code.
In the state’s response, submitted Nov. 6, Canales argued that the bribery allegations were “specific allegations of bribery and conspiracy to commit official misconduct” and noted that the burden of proof for a temporary removal was lower than probable cause.
A trial date for this case has yet to be set, but Ramirez said he got the impression the judge would wait until the federal case against Garcia was resolved first.
“It sounded to me like Judge Stith intended to kind of let this thing play itself out, and I think that’s what he had said, basically, at one of our early hearings,” Ramirez said. “If Danny is vindicated, which we expect he will be, then he resumes his position as a school board member. And if not, then it kind of resolves itself.”
Canales declined to speculate on whether or not a trial on the removal proceedings would be set.
Garcia’s trial on the federal charges, related to the city of Weslaco’s water treatment facilities, is set for Feb. 6, 2020.