It should not be a surprise to anyone that El Paso is facing various scandals at the same time, although they are hard to discern because, typically, the news media uses sensational headlines to grab your attention, thus distracting you from the details. Larry Romero is the de ‘jour flavor but in reality there is at least four scandals brewing right now. One involves the County and the rest involves the City. Let’s take a quick look at them.
The first one is the El Paso Children’s Hospital. As you likely know, the bankruptcy judge accepted the proposed joint agreement between the El Paso Children’s Hospital and UMC to settle the bankruptcy. Although Veronica Escobar and cohorts are proclaiming that they “saved” the children’s hospital, the reality is that the only thing they did was to have the taxpayers fund its operations. The children’s hospital’s business model has not changed and therefore it will continue to be supported by the taxpayers. That is the bottom line, regardless of what the politicians are telling you. In short order you will see UMC asking for additional taxpayer funds from you to shore up its bottom line. The political rhetoric will avoid reminding you that UMC’s finances now support the children’s hospital as well. It was all politically calculated to keep you funding it.
The next three scandals involve the financial services contracts and Larry Romero, although the public tends to equate it as one scandal, in reality it is three scandals. Let me break them up for you.
The first, of the three, is the financial services contract. City council voted on Monday to retain a third-party investigator to investigate the attempt to replace First Southwest. Although the rhetoric is that some on city council want the investigation to include more than the financial services contract, it is unclear whether this is actually what the investigator will do.
However, the attempt to replace the financial advisors could lead to one or more criminal complaints depending on what the investigator uncovers. At the moment, the insinuation is that Larry Romero could have benefited from the award of the contract. He, of course, has denied it.
In addition, Tommy Gonzalez, Mark Sutter, Larry Romero and others could possibly face ethics complaints at various levels depending on what the investigator finds in relation to city processes.
What is confusing about the outside investigation is that on the surface it appears that Oscar Leeser has been very transparent about the investigation. However, the investigator that was appointed has a reputation that insinuates that he may not be as transparent as the community would like him to be. I’ll be doing some research and sharing the results with you soon.
The more important question is why is it that the City is paying for an investigation when various resources are already available to the City to perform an independent investigation. For example, the Texas Rangers or the FBI have the resources and experience to investigate these types of allegations. The State of Texas has various entities, like the Comptroller’s Office that can also perform such an investigation.
On one hand Leeser seems to be attempting to shed public light on the issue while at the same time the appointment raises questions about how effective the investigator will be.
The second of the three is the delay of the bond sales. Although this issue is unlikely to involve activities that raise to criminal activity, it is the most important of all of the scandals because it demonstrates a true cost to the taxpayer for political favors. In addition, it demonstrates that activities can be hidden from public view, through the misuse of executive session and off the record conversations between government officials. The cost to the taxpayers is estimated at about $22 million but the true cost is the proof that the city government bypasses transparency for political favoritism. Imagine how many more “deals” have been conducted behind closed doors and what those costs are to the taxpayers.
You may have noticed that this scandal, as expensive as it is for the taxpayers, is being quietly buried behind the financial services controversy and the Larry Romero streets. I believe this is on purpose in order to protect Joyce Wilson, Susie Byrd and others that were involved. This is typical of El Paso politics, certain individuals enjoy the protection from scrutiny because of how they are perceived by those in power.
The final, or the third one of the three, involves numerous instances where Larry Romero may have bypassed city council authority for city projects. Although obviously improper for a city manager form of government, the actions taken by Larry Romero, with the help of the city manager, Tommy Gonzalez in regards to streets, is unlikely to rise to the level of criminality. What we know about the relationship between the two is troubling at best and corrupt at worst.
As I have written previously before, corruption is not necessarily criminal it is just favoritism at the cost of processes, good government policy and the result is that the taxpayer funds activities it should not have to.
As much as El Paso officials love to scream “it’s all good” in El Paso, the reality, as evidenced by these ongoing scandals, is that it is far from good. In many ways they are indications of serious problems within the core power base of the city.