Vargas removal case going to trial

BROWNSVILLE — A judge yesterday ordered a trial to decide whether San Benito school board President Michael Vargas should be removed from office.

In a hearing in 107th state District Court, visiting Judge Manuel Bañales ordered Vargas stand trial in a case in which residents petitioned to remove him from office as a result of his July 5 arrest on a driving while intoxicated charge.

A trial date was not set.

“This should be done as quickly as possible in light of the parties involved,” Bañales said.

Meanwhile, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz said he is upgrading Vargas’ charge from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor because his blood-alcohol level was higher than 0.15 percent. The legal limit is 0.08 percent.

As a result, prosecutors are counting what records show as Vargas’ first DWI charge as his second DWI, Saenz said after the hearing.

The upgraded charge increases the potential penalty from six months in jail and a $2,000 fine to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

On Oct. 2, residents Janie Lopez, Rosalinda Garcia, Ramon Santos and Oscar Medrano, a former school board member, filed the petition, requesting Vargas be removed from office.

Under Texas Government Code 87.015, the law allows residents to petition the court to remove elected officials from office for intoxication.

At his office, Saenz described court cases stemming from residents’ petitions as rare.

During the hearing, attorneys Jose Caso and Alex Dominguez, representing Vargas, requested Bañales dismiss the case because the District Attorney’s Office had not signed the petition and was not prosecuting the case.

The attorneys argued a Sept. 25 court order required the four residents revise their petition.

“The court finds that the form request submitted by petitioners does not meet the requirements,” the order signed by Bañales states, referring to Local Government Code 87.016 (a). “It is therefore ordered that until a proper application is filed requesting citation and service as required by law, all proceedings shall be and are hereby abated pending further orders of the court.”

Bañales overruled the attorneys’ argument, adding the District Attorney’s Office would become involved if the case moves further.

Then, Bañales ordered the case go to trial.

“We’re going to court,” school board member Mary Lou Garcia said as she walked out of the courtroom. “We’re going to trial.”

Vargas declined comment.

Janie Lopez, the school district’s former Guidance and Counseling coordinator who spearheaded the petition drive, called Bañales decision to order a trial “a victory.”

“I’m thankful he’s going to give us a chance to take it to court,” Lopez said after the hearing. “All we did was just present the facts we have.”

“We want to make sure our children have the right role model,” she said, referring to Vargas. “If this man is breaking the law, what can we expect of the decisions he’s making for the district?”

‘Last resort’

Lopez describes the case “a last resort.”

In August, Mary Lou Garcia and board member Angel Mendez requested trustees remove Vargas as president as a result of his arrest.

However, the board’s majority re-elected Vargas to the president’s post.

As the school board’s president, Vargas serves as the board’s leader and the district’s spokesman.

Compliance hearing

The hearing marked Vargas’ second of the day.

In a hearing in Cameron County Court at Law No. 5, Judge Estella Chavez Vasquez wanted to know whether Vargas complied with her Oct. 1 order to install a breath alcohol ignition interlock device equipped with a camera in his vehicle.

The device will not allow a vehicle’s engine to start if the motorist’s breath contains a blood-alcohol level greater than the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

According to a court document, Chavez Vasquez also prohibited Vargas from drinking alcohol or taking drugs before driving.

The arrest

In their petition, the residents cite Vargas’ July 5 arrest in Harlingen on a driving while intoxicated charge.

The petitioners’ evidence includes a police car’s dash cam footage of his arrest.

On July 5, a Harlingen police officer arrested Vargas, 32, after finding him sleeping behind the wheel of his car outside a fast-food restaurant at 1518 N. Ed Carey Drive at about 2 a.m., according to a police report.

Later that day, Vargas, who was arraigned before Municipal Court Judge Arturo Saenz, was released from the city jail after posting $2,000 bail.

According to the police report, Vargas was “displaying red blood-shot eyes and slurred speech” before his arrest.

Vargas refused an officer’s request to perform a field sobriety test, the police report states.

Vargas’ tenure

Vargas, who was elected to the school board’s Place 1 seat in May 2015, has served as the board’s president since May 2017.

Last year, he won re-election to the term expiring in 2021.