BROWNSVILLE — A judge yesterday ordered a trial for San Benito school board President Michael Vargas after prosecutors upgraded his charge of driving while intoxicated.
In Cameron County Court at Law No. 5, visiting Judge Leonel Alejandro set a Feb. 6 jury trial during an arraignment hearing stemming from Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz’s decision to upgrade Vargas’ DWI charge from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor based on his blood-alcohol level at the time of his July 5 arrest.
While the legal limit is 0.08 percent, tests show Vargas’ blood-alcohol level reached 0.15 percent.
As a result, prosecutors are counting what records show as Vargas’ first drunken driving charge as his second DWI charge, Saenz said during an interview earlier this month.
The upgraded charge boosts the offense’s potential penalty from six months in jail and a $2,000 fine to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
“We’re thankful for the legal system and glad (the case) is proceeding,” Janie Lopez, the school district’s former Guidance and Counseling coordinator who launched a drive to remove Vargas from the school board, said after the hearing.
“Vargas is an elected official and he should be treated like anybody else who works for the school district — they go through the process and are tried,” Lopez said. “It’s important to us that elected officials be held accountable also.”
During the hearing, Alejandro granted Vargas’ request to waive arraignment.
Meanwhile, Alejandro upheld a previous court order for Vargas to equip his vehicle with a breath alcohol ignition interlock device featuring a camera.
During an Oct. 1 hearing, Judge Estella Chavez Vazquez ordered Vargas to install the devise, which does 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.
Call for removal from office
The trial date marks the second for Vargas.
Earlier this month in 107th state District Court, visiting Judge Manuel Bañales set an April 13 trial to determine whether Vargas should be removed from the school board on the grounds of intoxication.
Meanwhile, Bañales set a Nov. 25 hearing to decide whether Vargas should be temporarily suspended from the board pending his April trial.
If Vargas is temporarily suspended, the court will consider the appointment of a temporary replacement.
The case stems from residents’ petition calling for Vargas’ removal as a result of his DWI arrest.
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.
Earlier this month, Saenz, who has held office since 2013 after serving as district attorney in the 1990s, called cases stemming from residents’ petitions exceptionally rare.
On Oct. 2, Lopez and residents Rosalinda Garcia, Ramon Santos and Oscar Medrano, a former school board member, filed the petition.
Lopez said Vargas’ arrest sends the wrong message to students who look up to the school board’s president as a role model.
As the board’s president, Vargas serves as the board’s leader and the district’s spokesman.
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 report, Vargas was “displaying red blood-shot eyes and slurred speech.”
Vargas refused an officer’s request to perform a field sobriety test, the 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.
San Antonio police report
The petition also cites a San Antonio police report in which Vargas was accused of being intoxicated while allegedly harassing former Arizona state Rep. Lydia Hernandez at a 2018 Mexican American School Board Members of America conference.
Vargas has dismissed the allegations as “politically motivated lies.”
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.