Trial date set in Vargas removal case

BROWNSVILLE — A judge yesterday set an April 13 trial to determine whether San Benito school board President Michael Vargas should be removed from office on the grounds of intoxication.

Meanwhile, Assistant District Attorney Edward Sandoval said he would request Vargas be temporarily removed from office.

In a hearing in 107th state District Court, visiting Judge Manuel Bañales set the court’s announcements for April 3.

The case stems from residents’ petition calling for Vargas’ removal as a result of his July 5 arrest for driving while intoxicated.

Under Texas Government Code 87.015, the rarely applied law allows residents to petition the court to remove elected officials from office on such grounds as intoxication.

On Oct. 2, residents Janie Lopez, Rosalinda Garcia, Ramon Santos and Oscar Medrano, a former school board member, filed the petition.

Lopez, the district’s former Guidance and Counseling coordinator who spearheaded the petition drive, said Vargas’ arrest sends the wrong message to students.

“We need a strong role model for our kids,” Lopez said after the hearing. “If Vargas is displaying behavior that goes against laws and ethics, he’s not meeting the district’s gold standard. Vargas also makes decisions that affect employees’ hiring and terminations. The employees need to know the district is going to be fair.”

Lopez said she was counting on an earlier trial date.

“I’m not happy about the length of time it’s going to take,” she said, referring to the April 13 trial date. “That’s almost at the end of the school year. I respect what the law says and I respect the process but it seems like an eternity.”

Call for temporary removal

During the hearing, Sandoval told Bañales he would file a request to temporarily remove Vargas from office.

“A temporary removal would allow the court to take action quicker,” Lopez said.

During an interview last week, District Attorney Luis Saenz, who has held office since 2013 after serving as district attorney in the 1990s, called cases stemming from residents’ petitions exceptionally rare.

Upgraded criminal charge

Meanwhile, Vargas also faces an upgraded criminal case stemming from his arrest.

In Cameron County Court at Law No. 5, visiting Judge Leonel Alejandro has set a Nov. 18 hearing in which Vargas is expected to be arraigned on an upgraded charge of driving while intoxicated.

Last week, Saenz said he was 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 drunken driving charge as his second DWI charge, Saenz said.

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. 1, Judge Estella Chavez Vazquez ordered Vargas equip his vehicle with a breath alcohol ignition interlock device featuring a camera.

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.

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

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

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

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.