By Juan Montoya
The four Brownsville Independent School District trustees who voted to censure trustee Catalina Presas-Garcia and did not allow her and trustee Lucy Longoria to discuss district issues during meetings were served with copies of lawsuit filed by the attorneys for the two women in federal court.
Trustees Otis Powers, Jose Chirinos, Minerva Peña, Cesar O. Lopez, Superintendent Carl Montoya and board counsel Baltazar Salazar were served during Tuesday night's regular board meeting. Montoya was sued as an individual. The lawsuit also named the BISD as a defendant.
Enrique Escobedo is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Some of the charges listed in the lawsuit involve claims that the majority of the board denied the women their First Amendment rights through retaliation and constraint. The lawsuit also charges that the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to deny the women their rights and includes a charge of defamation.
Among some of the charges was that the majority violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and that the defendants actions led to corruption in several actions by the board in the awarding of lucrative contracts
Longoria and Presas-Garcia charge that the harassment and retaliation against them has been persistent and ongoing since 2011. At various points in time, both questioned the majority’s decisions and actions pertaining to insurance contracts and agreements, employee voluntary group insurances, insurance consultants and other issues. They say that their speech and actions in questioning the majority’s decisions were made as trustees and at time as private citizens. They claim that the defendants had established a practice of steering lucrative contracts to specific individuals and/or companies and that decisions had already been made prior to the specific committees' recommendations so that specific contracts were awarded to specific vendors.
On one occasion, the lawsuit states that Catalina and Luci became aware of the fact that (the late board president Enrique) Escobedo went to a job site at the new Brownsville Academic Center in September, 2011, to negotiate a change order with a subcontractor to sub-contract with Escobedo’s brother’s company, American Surveillance, instead of Circle Industries, the company that had already been contracted by Texas Descon, L.P. These facts, the lawsuit states, were documented in a letter written by Carlos Guerra, an employee of BISD.
Among some of the other issues included in the lawsuit are the termination of legal counsel and the awarding it to another pre-chosen firm before the firm's work was over. Powers is quoted as saying that since the previous board had also terminated the former legal representatives, it was the turn of the new board to terminate this one.
The day after Thompson and Horton’s services were terminated, (both women) witnessed Dr. Montoya having lunch with Baltazar Salazar (the eventual counsel chosen) at Amigas Restaurant, and it appeared that they were already negotiating Salazar’s contract which they claim was a violation of Board policy and of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
They charge they were cut off when Longoria questioned the awarding of a $3,000 raise to Port of
Brownsville commissioner Martin Arambula, also a BISD employee, and linked it to a a $3,000,000 contract awarded by the port to American Surveillance, a company owned by (the late Enrique) Escobedo’s brother (Jaime), and Escobedo’s employer. Escobedo was also Vice President of American Surveillance. Catalina suspected that the contract given to American Surveillance in conjunction with the timing of Escobedo pushing for Arambula’s pay raise and the granting of a payday loan contract to Arambula’s sister with the BISD were linked.
While Longoria was questioning the board about these actions, Escobedo cut her off, called for a vote and did not allow her to speak in violation of Robert's Rules of Order.
Shortly after that, Escobedo invoked procedural limitations on the legitimate conduct of the women as trustees and submitted three revised local policies, BED (Local), BE(Local) and BDB(Local).
The net effect of these changes, the women charge, is that of excluding both of them as trustees from submitting agendas, disallowing their comments, disallowing adequate and allotted time for their comments on issues before the board, removing both from all committees of the board, and prohibiting them as elected trustees from participating in any debate over issues pending before the board.
Another issue raised by the women was their objection of the hiring of Baltazar Salazar on April 2, 2013, as district counsel because of previous felony arrests/convictions. Salazar had tried to expunge three offenses from his rcord, all which were felony theft by check cases, without success.
Those arrests were recorded in District Court of Cameron County on April 26, 1984 in Cause Number 85-CR-450-A. The lawsuit charges that although a trial court initially granted Mr. Salazar’s request for the expunction, that decision was overturned by the Court of Appeals, Thirteenth District of Texas, Corpus Christi-Edinburg, on August 15, 2013. Although district policy prohibits the employment of individuals with felony arrests and/or convictions, the majority voted to hire him anyway. On December 10, 2013, the same board majority voted to extend Salazar’s contract for another three years.
The women charge that Salazar lied on his application regarding what he was formally convicted of and the disposition of his charges, and BISD, in a conspiracy to hire an attorney that would do its "dirty work," purposely did not look into his criminal past.
There are numerous other instance where the women charge that the defendant board members conspired to hire BISD employees who had helped Escobedo get contracts for his surveillance company, and also appoint a trustee (Cesar O. Lopez) who was purchasing agent in Mercedes when American Surveillance was granted a contract with the Mercedes ISD.
The women also questioned the appointment Lucio Mendoza as the BISD's new CFO because Mendoza was the former Purchasing Director from Mission ISD and he had recently recommended and awarded a $865,000.000 surveillance contract to American Surveillance, the Escobedos' company, even though American Surveillance was not the lowest bidder.
Both women charge that as a result of the First Amendment violations and the violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act by the defendants they have violated their rights by interfering with their duties and responsibilities in the capacity as a public officer entrusted with governing and overseeing the management of the district.
The women are being represented by the Law Firm of Star Jones and the Frank Perez Law Firm, of Brownsville.