Veronica Escobar’s Letter About Greg Allen Was Political

veorr_03During the last two days I have been exploring Veronica Escobar’s stance in her refusal to release text messages and other communications she exchanged between other elected officials about El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen. Escobar has now taken the stance that she, alone, is the only qualified individual to determine what communications are personal and what are public records. As I closed yesterday, I asked you to focus on the last paragraph of the County’s response to my open records request where they tacitly agree that the City may not agree with the County’s position and thus I should ask them for the records.

Lucky for me, I had already done so and the records the City provided in their response to me gave me an idea of what is in Escobar’s communications, that she refuses to release. On July 27, 2016, I shared with you how Veronica Escobar was disappointed in Claudia Ordaz not supporting her on the Greg Allen repudiation attempt. (link) As you can clearly see in that example, Veronica Escobar sent a text message that she argues is not public information, yet, Claudia Ordaz released that text message as a public information record.

How many more such texts exist that Veronica Escobar alleges are not public records and yet the other half thinks it is? Either the text message is a public record or it is not.

I tried searching for other examples to see how other jurisdictions have dealt with this same set of circumstances. I did not find any. I then decided to consult the Texas Attorney General’s Public Information Handbook, version 2016. It did not address the instance of two elected officials exchanging private communications that may be construed as public records. However, the following three things in the handbook address part of the issue:

1. Personal notes made by public employees were not “information collected, assembled, or maintained by governmental bodies pursuant to law or ordinance on in connection with the transaction of official business.” This example referenced “Open Records Decision No. 77 (1975)

2. Public information in the possession of a private individual, whether stored on a government device or on a personal device only is still subject to open records requests. This is addressed in section 552.002(a-2) that reads: “any electronic communication crated, transmitted, received, or maintained on any device if the communication is in connection with the transaction of official business.”

3. Public information is defined as “any matter over which a governmental body has any authority, administrative duties, or advisory duties,” then the information is subject to the Texas Public Information Act.

I then decided to look at the two rules, or laws that govern Veronica Escobar as the County Judge. Public information laws are governed by federal law and by state law as well as local ordinances. In the case of Veronica Escobar, as the county judge, she is governed by the Texas Public Information Act as well as the County’s Code of Ethics. The state law has clearer requirements and penalties for ignoring the state’ open records laws. As many of you know, there is intent when it comes to laws and then there is the standards set by precedent, or previous court rulings.

The El Paso County Ethics Commission’ Code of Ethics, which became effective on September 1, 2011, was last amended last April. The Code of Ethics does not address public information directly but it does make mention of “political activity”. Since, Veronica Escobar stated that her communications in regards to El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen’s comments were “political activities” I looked to see how the county’s ethics rules defines political activities.

Section eleven of the ethics code states that county elected officials must not use county resources for political activities. It does not define what political activities are. The rest of the code mainly focuses on county contracts and how public officials shall deal with them.

The public information law for the State of Texas (Title 5) codifies that the government must adhere “to the principal that government is the servant and not the master of the people.” The law specifically states that “it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees.”

At this point I have three issues that I believe need to be addressed:

1. Are private communications between elected officials not subject to open records requests if they do not pertain to public business? If so, what will stop public officials from colluding privately?

2. Did Veronica Escobar act in her official capacity when she sent out her letter to the mayor and city representatives? Remember that Veronica Escobar is alleging that her activities were political in nature. I wanted to see how political activity is defined and therefore I looked at the federal government for help in defining what it means. According to the Hatch Act, political activity means an active support or opposition of a candidate or political party. The obvious exception to the Hatch Act is casting a vote in an election.

3. Did the signatures of other county elected officials make the letter a public record? If so, are the deliberations to create the letter not a public record?

These are important questions that clearly deserve an answer.

However, it all comes down to trust. Do you trust Veronica Escobar to be honest enough to tell you what communications in her private accounts/devices are public information records subject to disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act?

That is what she is demanding of you by refusing to release the communications she had with others, including elected officials, in formulating the letter demanding that city council repudiate Greg Allen for his comments.

Those of you who believe that public records are an important element of the Democracy should be alarmed that Veronica Escobar has embarked on a scheme to keep you from knowing how she arrives at public policy decisions because, she herself, is the only one that determines what is political activity and what is a public record. Last time I looked at the US naturalization test it reminded me that the United States is governed under the theory that government has checks and balances in place to keep the power in the hands of the people. Where are the checks and balances by having Veronica Escobar make the sole determination as to what constitutes a public record and what does not?

10 thoughts on “Veronica Escobar’s Letter About Greg Allen Was Political

  1. Mr. Paredes, you are confusing a few details that are important to understand because the error in your thesis forces the reader to draw an incorrect conclusion.

    Your argument that because one elected official released a text message that the other didn’t and therefore shows a disagreement of what is and is not releasable is incorrect.

    Text messages between elected officials in and of themselves are not releasable unless they relate to official business. Two elected officials speaking doesn’t inherently make their conversation public business. If two elected officials are at a UTEP basketball game and exchange text messages about the game, its not public business. Open Meetings and Open Records are not meant to curtail conversations between individual members of government and are not always accessible to the public.

    As I understand the situation based on news coverage, Escobar and other leaders were writing the letter as a clearly political statement. Use of their titles does not necessarily constitute that it is therefore business in their official capacity.

    Look at all the leaders that went to both the Democratic and Republican conventions. They all used their titles. But their speeches, many on this very topic, were political and not official business.

    The reason that Ordaz released a text message that Escobar didn’t is actually quite simple. For Escobar et al, the letter was political in nature and public resources spent on a political endeavor is prohibited.

    For Ordaz, the text message constituted official business because she is a representative at the municipal level, which is the level in which Chief Allen serves. The Chief answers to the City Manager and the City Manager answers to council. So for Ordaz, this was a text message about her action or lack of action in her official capacity as a city representative. Therefore it constitutes official business. It would not be official business for a county official because the chief doesn’t work for the County of El Paso.

    Just wanted to clarify that issue for you and your readers.

    1. Your argument is stupid. I doubt that you are a lawyer, but if you are. you are obviously incompetent. I wouldn’t want you defending me if I needed one.

  2. EPL,

    If you ask Escobar if anything she does is political she will say, “No, I only act in the community’s best interest!”

    So is the community’s best interest official business?

    Or maybe the self-righteous isn’t so self-righteous when convenient, which is kinda the point of this exercise.

    Love,

    Me

  3. Sounds familiar. Hillary is the only one who can determine whether or not her emails were private or work related. She decided which were work-related and which were personal after that the FBI had to hunt and seek and then found thousands more that were work related that she refused to turn over. Im not ssying the FBI should get involved. Im just stating that even officials at the highest level refuse to turn over their emails and we the people who pay their salary whether we like it or not have to live with it. Amazing how everywhere you go people object to these elected officials yet come reelection time they stand there taking their own. They’re just not enough people interested in our community to change circumstances because they don’t get involved in what is happening in our community.

  4. Thanks for clarifying El Paso lawyer. It still doesn’t change the fact she used her personal cell phone to contact other elected officials and rallying them to sign the document. That to me is subject to open records. I saw coverage of the issue on the news . I also sat in on chief Allens city hall meeting. I think it was wrong of Escobar to call for consequences but thats just my opinion, now the way she did it and is now trying to cover her tracks up on how she got the signatures and what devices she used is what I have the problem with. She just ended her political career with that one. I am a firefighter for the city and let me tell you and everyone reading we collectively have the police chiefs back. We will all be there on voting day to make sure she won’t be elected in any political capacity anymore. Expect the same numbers that won our previous election by a land slide. Sick of these politicians who think they are above the law.

  5. She used her position to promote her personal agenda. And she involved others who likewise push their personal agendas using their elected office as a platform. However the attorneys and government statutes decide to sort this out, the end result is the same in this case because the letter was made public. This grandstanding by Escobar, Byrd, O’Rourke and their cronies backfired. They all should be booted out of office but most El Pasoans don’t vote and those who do have short memories.

  6. Martin
    We wanted to wait before we posted anything on Martin’s last article but here is something that every one should think of and highlights how messed up County officials are. Our County Attorney Bernal was one of the signers of the letter against Allen with Vero but she failed ethically not in recusing her self and her office from make a decision on this open records request and should have forward this to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for review and an a opinion. Just because of her participation in this issue she should have remained silence and recuse herself and her office. This is not the first time Bernal as shown a ethical lapse of judgement. Then again the majority in El Paso approve of this behavior from their elected and appointed officials.
    Martin file for an review and opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Make Vero and Bernal at least show the Texas Attorney General’s office what they with held. You may not win but you send a notice that their are some of us out here watching and will hold them accountable for their action when we think it needs to be done.

  7. Martin
    Also if you can get copies of Vero interviews with local media on the letter she does come off as appearing to be acting in officials capacity as County Judge in her communicate in this letter to officials of the city of El Paso. You need to forward these with you r request of review to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. None of the interview we saw did we hear Vero say once she was acting as nothing more than a private citizen. Vero’s act was to come off as the head of El Paso county government questioning city government about Chief Allen’s statement. From the interview we saw a person with common sense wouldn’t take it any other way.

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