Citizens turned away from office

SAN BENITO — Local residents Mario and Astrid Hernandez pushed the double doors open and walked down the stairs away from the Cameron County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office yesterday afternoon.

They weren’t happy, based on their facial expressions.

They left with no vehicle registration sticker — the purpose of their stop there.

Mario and his wife Astrid, who is 36 weeks pregnant, had just left one doctor’s appointment and made time to obtain the car sticker before racing to another appointment.

Mario’s sticker expired in December.

“I’m here because my wife is pregnant and we’re busy running around to doctors’ appointments,” Mario, 31 said. “What happens if the police give me a ticket?”

Mario wanted answers to that question. The tax office couldn’t answer that yesterday.

Although employees were back at work, the tax assessor-collector’s computer network link to the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin is down until further notice.

The closure is due to the Wednesday arrest of Tony Yzaguirre, Cameron County’s tax assessor-collector, and three employees of the tax office.

Mario was told the office was not issuing car registration stickers and that he would have to go to H-E-B or apply for the stickers on the state website.

Mario said he had no other choice but to find the nearest H-E-B, where he expected he would have to wait in a long line to register his vehicle.

“I don’t have time,” Mario said, worried his wife and unborn baby would need to be taken to the doctor or hospital in their vehicle with expired stickers.

Mario and Astrid weren’t the only ones who left the county tax office frustrated yesterday.

Several county residents entered the tax office unaware of the arrest of Yzaguirre.

Many others who needed car stickers in San Benito and Harlingen were also sent to H-E-B because of the office closure.

The H-E-B system is tied directly to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.

The stores are processing vehicle registration renewals for Cameron County for an additional $1 processing fee.

Wendy Garcia was sitting in her car outside the tax office in Harlingen. She was upset that a simple transaction with the county wasn’t possible for her yesterday.

“I need the sticker to be able to drive my car and I couldn’t get that today,” Garcia, 25, said as she sat in her car wondering what to do next.

Garcia and others who visited the office on the north side of Harlingen also were unaware of the recent arrests and raid at the tax office in Brownsville.

The office was derailed on Wednesday when Yzaguirre and the three employees were arrested on charges of bribery and engaging in organized criminal activity.

Yzaguirre has been the tax assessor-collector since 1988.

“We’re hopeful we will get cooperation from law enforcement for people that couldn’t get back to the tax office to fix their expired plates,” said David Garcia, county administrator. “We don’t want people having problems further down the road.”

Offices reopened on Thursday for property tax collection purposes after being closed on Wednesday due to the undercover operation called “Dirty Deeds” on the tax assessor-collector’s office.

“This hurts us a little bit but thankfully we have the office open,” Garcia said.

The investigation was a collaborative effort by the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations and the Cameron Count District Attorney’s Office.

Yzaguirre and the three others were released on bonds after they were booked at the Carrizalez-Rucker Detention Center in Olmito.

County Judge Pete Sepulveda issued a statement late yesterday saying his office is working with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to ensure the DMV system is up and running at the Courthouse Administration Building in Brownsville first thing Monday morning.