Judge suspends school trustee Vargas

BROWNSVILLE — In what’s being called a precedent-setting case, a judge yesterday temporarily suspended San Benito school board President Michael Vargas on the grounds of intoxication nearly six months after his arrest on a driving while intoxicated charge.

In 107th state District Court, visiting Judge Manuel Bañales said Vargas will remain in office until the appointment of a temporary replacement.

On April 13, a jury will decide if Vargas should be removed from the school board.

Before handing down his ruling, Bañales said Vargas’ arrest sends students the wrong message.

“Here we have a school board member who’s supposed to look after the welfare of students,” he said. “Students who see this school board member walked away think they have a license to drink.”

Bañales said he would instruct the district clerk’s office to publish a newspaper notice requesting San Benito residents apply to temporarily replace Vargas on the school board.

Jose Caso, an attorney representing Vargas, said he believes the case sets a state precedent.

“It simply hasn’t happened in the state of Texas as far as our research indicates,” Caso said as he questioned the law’s constitutionality.

Assistant District Attorney Edward Sandoval said a Travis County district attorney who faced a DWI charge was not removed from office.

After the ruling, District Attorney Luis Saenz, who attended the hearing, said Bañales’ decision sets a precedent in Cameron County, where such as case had not been prosecuted since at least 1981, when he became a prosecutor.

“Today’s decision is a very appropriate reminder to all elected officials, including myself, that our positions belong to the people,” Saenz stated in a press release. “Just like they give you the position, they have the right to take it from you if you violate their trust.”

Call for removal

The case stems from residents’ petition requesting the court remove Vargas from office as a result of his July 5 DWI charge.

Under Texas Government Code Chapter 87, the rarely applied law allows residents to petition the court to remove elected officials from office on such grounds as intoxication.

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

“When we elect officials, we have to hold them accountable,” Lopez, the school district’s former Guidance and Counseling coordinator, said after the hearing. “We need to speak up.”

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

After the hearing, Lopez denied Vargas’ attorney’s claim that her petition sparked a political witch hunt against Vargas.

During an interview, Lopez said residents petitioned the court to remove Vargas after the school board’s majority refused to replace him as president.

“It’s not political,” Lopez said. “This is a person influencing the kids. This person was arrested and he was still there being a role model. This is a message to kids that breaking the law has consequences.”

Attorneys’ arguments

During the hearing, Caso questioned the constitutionality of the law allowing residents to petition the court to remove elected officials on the grounds of intoxication.

“There’s an overly broad definition of intoxication,” he told Bañales. “It’s got to be habitual. In this case, the petitioners are presenting one incident of drunkenness. In this case, there’s no habitual problem demonstrated.”

Caso also argued the law undermines the electoral process and the sanctity of the vote.

“It’s the foundation of our democracy,” he said. “The voters were given their opportunity to elect their official.”

Caso argued the petitioners targeted Vargas with the law which he claimed “discriminates against elected officials.”

“There have been countless county officials who have been intoxicated,” he said.

Attorney Dan Sanchez, who’s representing Vargas in a criminal case charging him with driving while intoxicated, argued the petitioners aimed at removing his client to shift power from the school board’s majority.

“It’s political,” Sanchez told Bañales. “It’s about control of the school board.”

Witness testimony

Taking the witness stand, Vargas repeatedly evoked the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.

However, when Bañales ordered him to answer a Sandoval question regarding a previous arrest, Vargas testified he had been arrested for driving under the influence in Missouri but didn’t know if he had been convicted.

On the witness stand, Megan Huerta, a forensics scientist with the Texas Department of Public Safety in Weslaco, testified Vargas’ blood-alcohol level was 0.256 — over the legal limit of 0.08 — at the time of his arrest.

Harlingen Police Officer Arnoldo Maldonado testified Vargas was incoherent when he was arrested for drunken driving at about 2 a.m. July 5 at a Taco Bell restaurant at 1518 N. Ed Carey Drive.

Maldonado testified he found Vargas sleeping in his vehicle, whose engine was running while it stalled in the fast-food restaurant’s drive-through lane.

“I was knocking on the window trying to wake him up,” Maldonado testified. “I woke him up. I believe I yelled at him. He was incoherent. I had to repeat my questions many times. He was mumbling most of the time. He said he was at a friend’s house. When I asked him where he was, he said Hidalgo County.”

DWI charge

Last month in Cameron County Court at Law No. 5, visiting Judge Leonel Alejandro set a Feb. 6 jury trial during an arraignment hearing stemming from 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 arrest.

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 last 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.

During the hearing, Alejandro upheld a previous court order requiring Vargas equip his vehicle with a breath alcohol ignition interlock device featuring a camera.

During an Oct. 1 hearing, Judge Estella Chavez Vazquez ordered to Vargas 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.

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.