QUESTIONS RAISED: Cases against mayor intertwine

By MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ
Managing Editor
editor@sbnewspaper.com

Mayor Joe H. Hernandez

Mayor Joe H. Hernandez

More questions have surfaced regarding the terroristic threat charge pursued by the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office against San Benito Mayor Joe H. Hernandez and its relation to his 2012 grand jury indictment for abuse of official capacity.

Official abuse allegations were brought to light when Alfonso Benavides – a resident of San Benito and self-proclaimed community advocate who himself has been in trouble with the law when he was arrested last year for harboring a runaway, a misdemeanor – filed an ethics complaint against Hernandez in January 2011. Said complaint eventually led to the mayor’s indictment in October 2012. Without having to plead guilty to abuse of official capacity, Hernandez agreed on Dec. 19 to serve one year probation by entering into the DA’s pretrial diversion program.

Officials have further reported that, as stipulated in the agreement, Special Prosecutor Ruben Peña will dismiss a tampering with evidence charge associated with the ethics complaint while the abuse of official capacity charge will be dismissed by the state should Hernandez complete his probation.

On Monday, March 18, the DA’s office filed a complaint, signed by Reynaldo J. Pineda, an investigator with the DA’s office, and undersigned by Assistant District Attorney Carlos Martinez, pursuing the terroristic threat charge, a misdemeanor. The mayor is currently awaiting arraignment, which has yet to be scheduled but may occur anytime between now and May.

The DA’s complaint states, “[Pineda] has good reason to believe and does believe that on or about the 27th day of October, 2012, A.D., and before the making and filing of this complaint, in Cameron County, Texas, Joe H. Hernandez, the defendant, did then and there intentionally or knowingly threaten to commit an offense involving violence to person, namely, that the defendant was going to kill the victim, with intent to place Ricardo Robles Rodriguez in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.”

When asked if the terroristic threat charge was taken into consideration in the abuse of official capacity case before allowing Hernandez to enter into the pretrial diversion program, which prohibits defendants from violating federal, state or local laws, Melissa Zamora, Public Information Officer for the DA’s office, reiterated that the terroristic threat charge was made prior to the agreement being reached and reminded that the administration of Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz had not yet been in operation.

The San Benito Police Department forwarded the terroristic threat case to the DA’s office on Nov. 15; the PTD agreement was reached in the abuse of official capacity case on Dec. 19; Saenz took office in January of this year.

Zamora added, “Also, the PTD agreement was offered by a special prosecutor not a current employee of the DA’s Office – attorney Ruben Peña. Mr. Peña would be the best point of contact with regards to your question.”

Attempts to reach Peña for comment were unsuccessful as of presstime Tuesday.

Jan Cassidy, who represented Benavides when he filed the ethics complaint against Hernandez, expressed concern for her client Tuesday.

“Quite frankly, tampering with a witness is huge, and Mr. Benavides is fearful,” Cassidy said. “The fact that Joe Hernandez would go to that extent, to threaten someone else, is just incredible. I know they’re saying it (terroristic threat) happened prior to his probation, but you can’t have it both ways. He got special treatment given the fact that after he committed the first offense he turned around and worsened it on the second offense, yet anybody else would’ve been refused pretrial diversion.”

Hernandez, meanwhile, continues to deny committing any wrongdoing in either the abuse of official capacity or terroristic threat claims, the latter stemming from allegations made by former San Benito City Commissioner Ricardo R. Rodriguez, who specifically accused the mayor of threatening to burn down his accuser’s Yoakum Street home on the morning of Oct. 27, 2012.

According to a report Rodriguez said he filed with the SBPD on Nov. 6, 2012, Hernandez was allegedly sitting inside his pickup truck parked outside of Rodriguez’ residence and taking photographs of said home.

Rodriguez, who served on the San Benito City Commission from 1975-1979, said that when he questioned the mayor as to his purpose, Hernandez allegedly responded, “I’m gonna get rid of you and Benavides, and I’m gonna burn you out of your houses after I’m through with what’s going on with me (indictment).”

Benavides alleged in his ethics complaint against Hernandez that the mayor violated a conflict of interest affidavit at a July 11, 2011 city commission meeting by participating in a discussion involving mobile vendors, proposing ordinance 2385-A. The conflict stemmed from Hernandez’ involvement in allowing Noe’s Tropical Sno-Wiz stand to operate on his barbershop property on Robertson St. without paying utility fees to the City of San Benito. Hernandez was also charged with tampering with evidence, a felony, for having the stand removed.

Citing the timing in which the indictment and the alleged terroristic threat charge were filed – the former occurring just days before the latter – Benavides and Rodriguez have since argued that the mayor was retaliating against them for their involvement in his legal woes. Despite not being directly involved in Hernandez’s indictment, Rodriguez alleges he was targeted by the mayor due to the belief that Benavides resided with the former commissioner.

Commissioners react

While fellow San Benito City Commission members Joe D. Gonzalez and Tony Gonzales could not be reached for comment on these matters, Hernandez, Commissioners James D. Penny and Rene Villafranco spoke candidly on the impact that the mayor’s controversial legal woes are having on the town.

“I don’t think it will affect the commission in any way or matter, but it does affect the city in some sense, because they’re (citizens) tired of the same thing… the same people,” Hernandez said of his accuser. “Ricardo Rodriguez has been on the opposite side of me all the time. It’s the same people, and it’s just sickening. But I’ll tell you one thing: The only thing that’s going to stop me from serving the community is a court order, because as long as the people continue electing me as mayor, I will continue serving. This is the city I grew up in. I would die for this city.”

Penny also doubts that the charges filed against Hernandez will become a hindrance to business. “When we go into our session,” Penny said of commission proceedings, “we’re not really thinking about that, and there’s nothing mentioned when we’re up there. Nothing is ever said. It’s not really something that we’re thinking about, and in our case – to make decisions on what we’re doing – I don’t think it has any impact on our decision-making.”

“I wouldn’t consider it a black eye,” Penny continued on whether Hernandez’ charges negatively impacts the community. “This city has already been back and forth with this political thing, and basically it’s just two different factions working. Every year it’s one side, and another year it’s the other side. I think we should kind of put down and set aside our differences. Let’s get this town moving. I know people always write in their comments to the newspaper and on the website, but it’s a different story when you get in and you have these matters in front of you. You have all the facts. That’s the thing a lot of people don’t understand.”

Villafranco has a different view, remarking, “Any time any official is facing criminal charges, it’s never good.”

“We’re trying to do something positive and this is like a black eye on San Benito,” Villafranco said of the allegations levied against Hernandez. “It hurts in the way that we’re trying to be positive. It’s more of a personal issue, and you know San Benito is nothing but politics and Joe has always had his opposition hammer him every election with everything. But at the end, this will be up to the DA and the court system to prove who is right and who is wrong.”

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