Former city representative Beto O’Rourke recently confirmed that he will be challenging US Representative Silvestre Reyes in the March Democratic Primary. Although recently confirmed, there have been months of speculation on his intent to seek the 16th Congressional seat. Both the incumbent and the challenger have plenty of actions to create the necessary record for the electorate to make a decision on Election Day.
Local bloggers have fallen over themselves trying to garner attention of the upcoming bruising battle by focusing on the controversy of O’Rourke’s use of a nickname rather than his given name. Funny how politics can be, the use of a nickname becomes the central issue rather than the policy decisions and the actions of the politicians.
In the case of Beto O’Rourke, although portrayed as a newcomer looking to unseat the incumbent, the fact is that Beto O’Rourke has cemented a record that will be hard to overcome for the typical El Paso voter, regardless of the nickname he runs under.
Issue: Conflict of Interest
In early 2006, the Paso del Norte Group comprised of Beto O’Rourke, his father-in-law – William Sanders, and various other powerful businessmen secretly crafted a plan to modernize downtown El Paso. The plan called for relocating people out of their homes under the auspice of rebuilding a historical part of downtown to a more palatable format for economic revitalization. As the plan trickled into the community’s consciousness an unmistakable truth materialized: eminent domain had to be used in order to accomplish the goals of the project.
The issue of eminent domain comes down to one simple truth; the government targets a house and determines that it will take it regardless of the owner’s wishes. It does not matter that the home has been in the family for generations nor does it matter that the owner does not want to move. Under eminent domain the government has a right to take your home for a price determined by the government and supported by the court systems, whether you want to sell it or not.
Coincidently the El Paso downtown, both commercial and residential, is comprised mostly of Mexican and Korean residents and shop owners. Its culture is thus something they have developed and honed over generations to fit their needs and not the needs of others. Therefore you are more likely to find a panaderia selling Mexican sweet bread rather than a Starubucks, selling coffee.
Generally I refrain from commenting on racial divides because, frankly, racial divides exist all over the world and are not unique to Americans. In this case, the racial divide must be pointed out because the Paso del Norte Group made it so with a study commissioned by them that made racial comments about the area. The GlassBeach study, a city rebranding study, was funded by El Paso City Council of which Beto O’Roruke is a member.
The GlassBeach study purported to study how downtown El Paso is perceived in order to develop a branding campaign to make it more palatable for redevelopment. In complete ignorance of the makeup of the existing demographic of the target area, or perhaps based on the assumption that the demographic does not vote, the study proceeded to denigrate the community that makes up downtown El Paso through culturally insensitive imagery and perpetuating racist stereotypes of the population. Beto O’Rourke supported the study financially through his vote at City Council and vocally in public commentary.
The conflict of interest
As a city representative Beto O’Rourke voted and participated in multiple actions of City Council in regards to downtown redevelopment. Although O’Roruke has continuously taken the position that he does not have a conflict of interest in the downtown redevelopment effort, he finally submitted a signed affidavit that he does, in fact, have a conflict of interest, but not before participating in multiple votes, that in at least one case, was instrumental in moving the plan forward as the vote was affirmed by one vote over the others.
As a matter of fact, according to O’Rourke’s conflict of interest affidavit, the conflict did not come about from his relationship with his father-in-law, William Sanders but rather his wife, who is employed by someone who owns property in the area. This goes against those who have consistently pointed out that the guiding force behind the downtown redevelopment plan is, William Sanders, O’Roruke’s father-in-law.
According to Tanny Berg, a well-respected businessman with significant ties to El Paso downtown, William Sanders, Beto O’Rourke’s father-in-law is the driving force behind the downtown redevelopment effort. Not only that, but Sanders is a founding member of the Paso del Norte Group who developed the downtown redevelopment plan and is the founder of the Borderplex Community Trust, a REIT designed to acquire investment property in downtown El Paso.
Although Sanders, at first, stated that in order to avoid a potential conflict of interest for O’Rourke that any monies he made from his participation in the project would be donated to charity. Sanders backtracked from that promise a short time later.
In the meantime, O’Rourke continued to participate on votes directly related to the downtown redevelopment effort.
Ethics Complaints Filed
Because of the apparent ethical conflicts, opponents of the downtown redevelopment effort filed ethics complaints against Beto O’Rourke in 2006.
According to the complaint, O’Rourke’s conflict stems from two issues in relation to the downtown redevelopment efforts. The first one was his company’s alleged financial benefit from providing services to the Paso del Norte Group.
Although, no longer a member of the Paso del Norte Group, O’Rourke’s mother and wife were members of the group spearheading the revitalization efforts while O’Rourke was voting on the plan’s requests before City Council. William Sanders “is a highly influential member” of the group, according to the complaint.
The complaint was amended later to add the following allegation against O’Rourke. According to the amended complaint, O’Rourke received favors from his father-in-law that according to the complaint rise above “normal familial benefits”. The complaint alleges that Beto O’Rourke took his financial records to be analyzed by Verde’s company accountant “three days before the public unveiling of PDNG’s Revitalization Plan”. Verde Group, LLC. is owned by Sanders. According to the complaint, this points to a “troubling impression that Sanders unduly enjoys his favor in the performance of his official duties”.
Unfortunately for the community, but seemingly fortunate for Beto O’Rourke, the ethics complaints never got the opportunity to be reviewed and acted upon by the city’s Ethics Commission because the City Attorney, Charles McNabb, decided that the complaint could not move forward to the Ethics Commission. Charles McNabb, the city attorney under Ray Caballero, one of O’Rourke’s allies in the divided Democratic Party of El Paso, left the position after Caballero’s loss to the new mayor, Joe Wardy. McNabb was brought back from Chicago by the current mayor, John Cook. O’Rourke is on the record stating that McNabb advised him on whether he had a conflict or not before an actual complaint was filed.
Under the city’s municipal code, it is the city attorney that determines whether a complaint is forwarded to the ethics commission, or not. It is a classic case of the wolf guarding the hen-house. In this case, McNabb counsels O’Rourke on whether there is potential for an ethical violation while at the same time being the gatekeeper of the commission that is tasked with hearing evidence of possible ethical violations.
The city’s ethics commission never got the opportunity to hear the evidence levied against O’Rourke.
Issue: The Drug War
There is no doubt that the drug war in Mexico has been center stage for years now with El Paso and Cd. Juárez being the nexus to the death and destruction of its affects upon society. Plain and simple, people are dying in the ongoing battle for control of the lucrative drug trade.
As an elected official, Beto O’Rourke is tasked with making policy for the community. Although outside of the purview of his elected office, Beto O’Rourke nonetheless has taken the controversial stance that legalizing drugs will somehow placate the drug dealers. Regardless of one’s stance on the issue, the problem is that the community has sacrificed, continues to sacrifice to control drug proliferation and has made it clear it is not interested in drug legalization.
In 2009, Beto O’Rourke on the other hand has publically and nationally called for an “honest open national debate on ending the prohibition of drugs”. He made his position clear on the issue as a city representative when he added those specific words to a City Council resolution in support of Cd. Juárez, El Paso’s sister city on the Mexican side of the border and arguable the citizens that have suffered the most in the going struggle against the drug cartels. O’Rourke’s amendment was killed by Mayor Cook who vetoed it.
Beto O’Rourke had nonetheless made his position clear, both personally and under the auspice of his official capacity as a city councilman. Clearly and from a policy perspective, O’Rourke wants to explore the legalization of drugs.
Is this really representative of the will of the people of El Paso?
Money laundering has been identified by governments as one of the major tools drug dealers use to fund their murders and continue to traffic in their drugs. This is the reason why the governments of both Mexico and the United States have setup rules related to dealing in cash. The laws are designed to allow government agencies to monitor and identify money laundering by criminals.
In May, 2010, Charlotte’s, Inc., owned by Beto O’Rourke’s mother, pled guilty to “structuring transactions to evade reporting requirements”. In other words, the company handled cash in a way that allowed it to avoid reporting where the large cash transactions were coming from, as required by federal law. The company was sentenced to five years’ probation and ordered to pay a fine of $500,000 with $250,000 probated and the remaining $250,000 to be paid in annual installments of $50,000.
According to the plea agreement, “Charlotte’s employees structured approximately $630,745.28 in cash payments in excess of $10,000 received from the ‘particular customer’”. The plea agreement shows that Charlotte’s also accepted additional cash payments totaling an additional $1,071,934.00. Charlotte’s plead guilty to “structuring” the cash payments in order to avoid reporting them to the government as required.
There are two very troubling aspects to this issue. The first is that the mount, over $1.5 million came from a small group of individuals with a majority being attributed to a “particular customer”. Even more troubling is the fact that although over one million dollars in cash was handled by the company, not one individual, much less the owner, was ever charged, much less convicted of a crime. Since when does a company commit a crime without the help of an individual?
Even more troubling is that the only reason someone “structures” cash transactions is to avoid reporting them to the government, something that only benefits people engaged in criminal behavior.
On one hand, O’Rourke advocates drug legalization while at the same time his mother’s company pleads guilty to structuring large cash transactions to avoid reporting requirements.
Issue: The will of the voter; trustee versus delegate
Beto O’Rourke is not shy about taking the position that he is elected as a “trustee” whose job is to make a decision on what he thinks is better for the community, rather than what the constituency demands.
The domestic partners issue is the first example of O’Rourke’s stance that he is better suited to make decisions for the community rather than to express the will of the community. Although Beto O’Rourke has vainly tried to wrap this issue under the cloak of a civil rights issue right out of the 60’s, the reality is that it has nothing to do with civil rights, but rather about how the community wants its money spent. The community is clear that it is against extending benefits coverage, at the expense of the taxpayer, to unmarried couples. Beto O’Rourke, on the other hand feels that his position, although contrary to the will of the people, should be the official policy of the community.
During the debacle and the continued threat to people’s homes under the city’s power of eminent domain, Beto O’Rourke has consistently supported the use of eminent domain, as supported by the Paso del Norte Group, while his father-in-law leads the endeavour, notwithstanding what his constituency, those under threat of losing their homes, have demanded of him.
In other words, Beto O’Rourke has taken the position, through words and actions, that he represents the interests of what he believes is better for the community, even though it might benefit his family and friends while being detrimental to those that he represents. He votes for his needs, rather than the needs of those he purports to represent.