CORPUS CHRISTI — The moment a judge uttered the words “not guilty” yesterday at Cameron County Tax Assessor-Collector Tony Yzaguirre Jr.’s trial, the atmosphere tensed.
Yzaguirre’s family was unsure. Should they feel hopeful?
As Senior State District Judge Manuel Banales kept reading the verdict, two men burst out, excited, and the bailiff was forced to remove them from the courtroom.
His wife, Diana, started crying, and when she was able, hugged her husband. His sister’s arm could not stop shaking when she called others to relay the news.
“I think (it’s) common when (people) see someone get arrested, they assume that person is guilty automatically without hearing what happens. But that’s why we have juries to show the other side of the story,” lead defense attorney Eddie Lucio said.
Yzaguirre was found not guilty on 15 counts of bribery, abuse of official capacity, and official oppression.
During the trial, Lucio and his co-counsel, Myles Garza, were able to successfully paint the picture of a flawed investigation, in which Texas Department of Public Safety agents were unaware of a key distinction up until a few weeks before the trial.
Dealers do not require a photo identification or proof of insurance to register vehicles or do title transfers.
DPS informant Mel Sosa was not a dealer at the time of the investigation, but he did have a history as a dealer. He also bought and sold cars for a living.
Sosa visited the tax office 21 times during the course of the investigation but was only able to meet with Yzaguirre on five occasions.
Prosecutors alleged that Sosa would slip $100 into an envelope for each vehicle that was illegally processed. Each meeting was recorded.
In one instance, the recorder remained on after agents thought they turned it off, catching one admitting her doubts as to whether Yzaguirre was “taking the money.”
“By midday of the first day, we felt their case was already suffering and having problems,” Lucio said. “(Seven) charges were thrown out because they had errors … And once we saw that, we felt confident.”
The defense built its case around the state’s witnesses, because they already had the key pieces they needed, Lucio said.
After seeing the state’s evidence, Lucio is unsure why the case got as far as it did. He also did not dismiss the possibility of a countersuit.
“We’re a little saddened that we had to be here to begin with. We hope that this is the last of this and that the people who were arrested be left alone,” Lucio said.
He is referring to county tax investigator Pedro Garza, dealer/notary supervisor Omar Sanchez-Paz, Chief Lt. Jose Mireles, and tax office employees Marisol Sifuentes and Claudia Elisa Sanchez.
Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz will be sitting down with Assistant District Attorneys Kristine Trejo and Peter Gilman to see whether the other employees can be tried, authorities said.
“We are obviously terribly disappointed, but as prosecutors we are going to win some cases and, if we are not afraid to take on the tough cases, we are going to lose some,” Saenz said. “We will not be discouraged by this. We will continue to listen to the public, work with law enforcement and continue to monitor elected officials.”
The dealer error did not help the case, but those charges were dropped, leaving only citizen-to-citizen transactions. It is hard to say what the jury looked at, but this was cleared out so the jury could understand what transpired, Saenz said.
There is no such thing as a perfect investigation, he added.
“We’re going to have investigations that as prosecutors we wish it was done differently, but it is what it is. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and have yet to come across a perfect investigation,” Saenz said. “Murphy’s Law. If it can go wrong, it’ll go wrong.”
Regardless of the verdict, the DPS investigation revealed troubling facts that still remain, Saenz said.
“The fact is that Mr. Yzaguirre is dealing with individuals in private while hard-working, tax-paying citizens are waiting in line to conduct their business,” Saenz said. “It begs a question as to why he’s doing that.”
Yzaguirre has maintained his innocence from Day 1. This verdict has not only proven that for him, but also for his staff, the county tax assessor-collector said.
He called the ordeal “very tough” and “too long.”
He is hopeful that he can resume his work Monday morning.
“My door is always open to everybody. We are going to do what we were elected to do in November. … It’s going to be back to work, normal, and we just have to take it one day at a time, explaining to people what happened,” Yzaguirre said.