Two cases that allege the Edinburg mayor and his political faction conspired to fire former employees continued to snake their way through federal court Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa heard both cases. One was filed by former city spokeswoman Irma Garza and the other was filed by three former employees of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation: Leticia Reyes, Laura Vela and Jennifer Cabrera.
Both lawsuits allege Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina and his political allies violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights because they allegedly directed others to fire the employees named in the suit.
Hinojosa first heard the case involving the former EEDC employees, who were terminated shortly after a new political majority won the November 2017 municipal election.
REYES, VELA & CABRERA
Reyes, who most recently served as the EDC’s director of public affairs and business development, said in the lawsuit that she worked at the nonprofit for 10 years under two different mayors and had never received any bad marks on her employment record.
But during campaign season, the Molina faction — which at that point included council members Jorge Salinas, Gilbert Enriquez and former Mayor Pro Tem David Torres — reached out to her for a monetary contribution to their campaigns, the lawsuit indicates.
Reyes’ husband owns a real estate company that often does business with the city, and she instructed him not to donate because she wanted to remain neutral, the lawsuit goes on to state.
Shortly after the election, Reyes was terminated and told the nonprofit was “broke” and “salary heavy.” A few days later, she ran into the mayor while filling out paperwork for her termination, the suit stated, and she asked him about it.
“Why don’t you go work for your husband,” Molina allegedly responded.
Vela, an administrative assistant to the executive director, was also fired in similar fashion. Though, Vela believes she was terminated because she is related to one of the candidates that at the time was running against the Molina faction. The lawsuit, however, does not include the candidate’s name.
“Vela knew that being a relative to a political opponent of defendant Mayor Molina caused a higher sense of anger and frustration,” the suit stated.
Vela was also responsible for implementing policies that kept the mayor from “barging” into the executive director’s office, the suit continued.
Cabrera, the former marketing specialist for the nonprofit, alleged she was instructed to ignore her duties to bring in new businesses to the city, and instead ordered to “make copies and get things for the board.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, their attorney David Flores told the judge that Cabrera had decided to remove her claim from the suit. When Hinojosa asked Flores why Cabrera made the decision, Flores said he didn’t know. She might be feeling pressure to do it, Flores speculated.
The judge said he would issue a scheduling order and not much else happened during the court hearing.
Irma Garza alleges the same political faction conspired to fire her and hire a political supporter: current city spokeswoman Cary Zayas.
Much of the conversation during the second hearing centered on Garza’s request for information from the defendants. She wanted names and phone numbers of everyone who worked on the Molina faction campaigns and the number of people who were either terminated or resigned following the election.
Edinburg city officials said that between Nov. 1, 2017 and June 17, 2019, 394 employees had either resigned or been terminated.
Garza also wanted text messages between the council members and three others: Zayas, the city spokeswoman’s sister Robin Zayas and Dorian Madrigal.
“We looked and we didn’t find any,” the defendant’s attorney said about written communications between the parties.
Flores, who is also representing Garza, wasn’t so sure that was accurate based on a deposition Robin Zayas gave that indicated the current spokeswoman communicated with the mayor and other defendants prior to her employment with the city.
Still Hinojosa was unmoved.
“You already have that information,” the judge told Flores, citing the deposition. “What more do you want?”
The attorneys continued to bump heads over a couple of issues, including whether attorneys could obtain the information they were seeking without having the court step in.
“Sometimes I think I’m Judge Judy,” Hinojosa said. “Do I really need to step in here?”
At the end of the day, all parties agreed to give Flores 21 days to submit another amended petition on Garza’s behalf.
NOTE: This story has been updated to fix the spelling of a name.