Pharr’s former police chief filed a whistleblower lawsuit on Aug. 31 against the city alleging he was demoted in July because he believed the interim city manager violated the law when he requested an investigative report into misuse of public funds.
In the suit, Jose A. Luengo, who was demoted to the rank of lieutenant on July 2, alleges interim City Manager Ed Wylie’s decision to remove him as chief was retaliation for Luengo alleging to the Texas Rangers that Wylie violated a law regarding misuse of official information.
The city of Pharr and Luengo’s attorney, David Willis, have not responded to requests for comment.
When the city announced Luengo’s removal as chief, it issued a news release to local media announcing that Wylie had reassigned Luengo as the city decided to go in a different direction.
At the time, Pharr Mayor Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez told The Monitor that Texas Local Government Code allows Wylie to appoint or remove individuals at his leisure. Hernandez also said at the time that he was unaware of why Wylie reassigned Luengo, but said it was not related to the former chief’s three-day unpaid suspension from May 8 to May 11.
The city has not commented to The Monitor regarding the reason for the suspension, but documents that include a redacted police report, text messages and a suspension letter obtained through a Texas Public Information Act request shine light on that suspension, which is also a subject in Luengo’s lawsuit.
Luengo alleges in the lawsuit that on May 8 a Pharr city employee instructed an officer investigating the misuse of public funds to turn over a report regarding an ongoing investigation.
“The Investigator refused the instruction because one of the persons included in the investigation was a close family member of the employee,” the lawsuit alleges.
Neither the lawsuit nor the documents obtained by The Monitor reveal the familial relationship Luengo is alleging.
“Moments later,” according to the lawsuit, Wylie ordered Luengo to give him the investigation report.
“Ed Wylie told Plaintiff that the Office of the District Attorney for Hidalgo County wanted information from him, Ed Wylie, about the contents of the Report of Investigation,” according to the lawsuit.
The three-day suspension letter and accompanying text messages obtained through the open records request confirm the May 8 exchange Luengo cites in his lawsuit.
“Earlier today Mr. Wylie contacted you about a report that the DA’s office inquired about, Mr. Wylie requested that your department submit the report in questions (sic) to Administration,” the May 8 suspension letter states. “You proceeded to advise him that you would not release the report as per his request. Mr. Wylie sought further clarification to ensure there was no miscommunication via text messages and you once again confirmed that you would not release the report to him.”
In the text message, Wylie asks Luengo to send him a report regarding “some theft by a homer villarreal from psja. Need it by 2 pm. Thx.”
In response, Luengo says, “Good pm sir. Respectfully…May I ask what u need it for..this is an open investigation. Patricia rigney knows and was advised earlier today of the status of the case along with psja superintendent and the DA.”
Wylie texts back and tells him to send it, saying he has not spoken to Rigney.
The newspaper also has text messages between Luengo and Rigney where he asks Rigney to contact Wylie about the case. Both strings of text messages are early afternoon, right after the lunch hour on May 8.
Rigney, Pharr’s city attorney, tells Luengo that she is not involved and if Wylie is asking, Luengo needs to address it.
“No problem…Just letting you know he is asking for the report…and i am hoping u advised him of the delicate situation,” Luengo says in response.
Rigney responds, saying there is no delicate situation. That’s the extent of the text message exchange between 1:27 and 2:01 p.m. on May 8 between Luengo and Rigney.
The text messages between Luengo and Wiley occur on the same day and the screenshots include time stamps of the exchange at 1:37 p.m., 1:43 p.m. and 3:45 p.m.
After Wylie says he hasn’t spoken to Rigney, Luengo tells him that he cannot release the report.
“Sir..respectfully…i cannot release the report…we can meet and i can give you a follow up…i will advise ms rigney to make contact with you,” Luengo says.
Wylie then asks Luengo whether he is refusing an order and in a follow up message says: “Since you won’t answer my question. If I don’t have it by 2, come by at 430 pm today at my office.”
“I am not refusing an order but I am not going to get in trouble with the DA or jeopardize the case…it’s an ongoing investigation. I am trying to look after you. I can have Chavez give you a brief on the case if you like. Sounds to me like you are threatening me,” Luengo says.
The former chief may be referring to Edward Chavez, the investigator listed on the redacted police report. Chavez is an assistant chief who served as interim until the city of Pharr appointed its new chief Andrew “Andy” Harvey Jr. on July 13 — 10 days after Luengo’s removal.
In response to Luengo, Wylie tells Luengo he has no idea what the DA is asking and that he does not need to look out for him. Wylie then orders him to be at his office at 4:30 p.m.
“You are refusing an order,” Wylie says in the text. “There is no law that stops me from getting it … so come by at 430 pm today. Thank you.”
That same day Wylie suspends Luengo for three days, citing disobedience of lawful orders and insubordination or disrespectful behavior toward a supervisor.
“This personnel action serves notice to you that the continued disregard to management’s authority will not be tolerated. Failure to improve will result in more severe disciplinary action to include removal from the position of Department Head, reinstatement to the last tested rank and up to immediate termination of employment with the City of Pharr,” the suspension letter states.
While Hernandez, the mayor, told The Monitor in July that he didn’t know the reason for Luengo’s removal, he did say it had nothing to do with Luengo’s May 8 suspension.
And according to Luengo’s lawsuit, Wylie continued requesting the report and in response, Luengo informed Hernandez of Wylie’s request and told the mayor that he contacted the Texas Rangers about it.
That suspension letter itself states exactly what happened to Luengo. By July 2, he was removed as the top cop in Pharr.
In the litigation, Luengo says in his 11 years in law enforcement he has never heard of the DA’s office going through a city manager for the status of an ongoing investigation.
“Plaintiff refused to turn over the report out of concern that the information contained therein may be misused or may result in interference with the ongoing investigation. Later that day, the Investigator turned over the report to Ed Wylie,” the lawsuit states, referring to May 8.
The documents corroborate portions of a timeline Luengo lays out in his lawsuit regarding his suspension and the investigative report at the center of Wylie’s request.
“In a subsequent meeting with the Investigator, Ed Wylie, without any law enforcement experience, said the report was vague and instructed the Investigator to produce to him all the evidence related to the ongoing investigation. Plaintiff believed that the instruction to produce evidence in an on-going criminal case was not only improper, but a violation of law,” Luengo says in the lawsuit.
So, on May 11, the last day of his suspension, Luengo says in the litigation that he met with the Texas Rangers to report that he believed Wylie’s request to be a violation of the law, namely a misuse of official information.
“The Investigator was aware of Plaintiff’s meeting with the Texas Rangers,” the lawsuit states.
On May 21, Luengo says Hernandez contacted him to ask about a news article regarding his suspension. They met the next day, May 22, according to Luengo.
During that meeting, Luengo says in the lawsuit that he told the mayor about Wylie’s request and that he refused to release the report.
“On or about May 26, 2020, Ed Wylie requested the report once again. Plaintiff advised Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez of Ed Wylie’s request. That same day, Plaintiff contacted the Texas Rangers via text message to inquire about the status of the Texas Rangers investigation,” Luengo says in the lawsuit.
On June 1, about a month before his reassignment, Luengo says he requested a meeting with Hernandez.
“During the meeting, Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez asked Plaintiff ‘why would you go to a third-party?’ in reference to Plaintiff’s meeting with the Texas Ranger,” according to the lawsuit.
Luengo also says in the litigation that on July 2, the day he was reassigned, Wylie met with the investigator, Chavez, and acknowledged he was aware of Luengo’s meeting with the Texas Rangers.
As for the investigative report at the center of the lawsuit and the suspension — and according to Luengo, his “demotion” — it’s into an individual named Homero Villarreal.
The redacted offense report states that in February 2019, an administrator and accountant with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district contacted the Pharr Police Department to report a possible theft case.
The administrator told Chavez that “Villarreal appeared to be involved in fraudulently using purchase orders at three different places of business to obtain material/equipment.”
An accountant provided an internal audit to Chavez that “showed Homer Villarreal using purchase orders over a three-year period which resulted in a monetary loss to P.S.J.A. of over one-hundred thousand dollars.”
The charge on the redacted report is listed as theft of property, more than $30,000, but less than $150,000.
“I reviewed the information provided to me in the internal audit report,” Chavez wrote in the redacted offense report. “The report showed that Homer Villarreal used purchase orders to obtain materials at Burton Auto Supply, Valley Outdoor Equipment and Hub Auto.”
Online Hidalgo County records reflect that Pharr police arrested a Homero Villarreal on June 29 and charged the man with theft of property, more than $30,000, but less than $150,000 — the same charge and name as in the redacted report. Those online records and the redacted report list an address in San Juan for a suspect named Homero Villarreal.
The Monitor awaits word from Pharr police on whether the Homero Villarreal listed on the redacted police report is the same Homero Villarreal arraigned in Pharr Municipal Court on June 29.
The Homero Villarreal listed in online county jail records never appeared in the daily booking reports, nor the weekend booking reports provided to the newspaper on Mondays.
Booking reports for June 29 and June 30, a Monday and Tuesday, do not list a Homero Villarreal. According to online jail records, the Homero Villarreal arraigned by Pharr Municipal Court on June 29 was released on a $25,000 personal recognizance bond.
As for Luengo, his $127,100 salary as chief was cut drastically. Now Luengo is being paid $69,499 as a lieutenant — a difference of $57,100, according to a personnel action form obtained through an open record request dated July 2.
In that letter, Wylie cites his authority under Pharr’s city charter and Texas Local Government Code for Luengo’s removal as chief.
“Since you have prior civil service in the department, you will be reinstated to the rank you last held prior to your appointment as Police Chief, Lieutenant, and you will retain all rights of seniority in the Department,” Wylie wrote. “Since the position of department head is an at-will position, you do not have any civil service appeal rights from my decision to remove you as Chief of Police.”
Wylie then thanks Luengo for his service as police chief and says he looks forward to Luengo’s contributions to the city of Pharr as a lieutenant.
As for the lawsuit, Luengo is seeking monetary damages of more than $200,000, but no more than $1 million, attorney’s fees and any other relief he is entitled to.
The city of Pharr has not yet responded to the lawsuit, court records show.
Monitor staff writer Frank Jimenez contributed to this report.