The threat of COVID-19 has caused disruption in court systems across the country, leading to postponement of several pending cases. The case to remove Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia is not the exception, and on Monday, his attorneys argued delays had infringed on his due process rights.
Visiting state District Judge David Stith had ordered Garcia’s temporary removal from the school board in November pending a trial that would decide whether he would be removed permanently. However, during a virtual hearing held Monday morning, his attorneys asked Stith to consider reinstating Garcia to the school board, noting 188 days had passed since his removal and arguing that further delays would likely affect Garcia’s ability to campaign for re-election, for which he is up in November.
The petition to remove Garcia from the school board was filed in May 2019 by Ricardo Lopez, a former employee of the school district.
Lopez was arrested in November 2017 for allegedly trying to bribe a judge who, at the time, was presiding over a murder case.
In the petition, Lopez alleged that Garcia orchestrated that bribery attempt and that Garcia, an attorney, maneuvered his way onto the legal defense team for that defendant by allegedly offering a school employee a promotion and/or withholding pay raises so that they would solicit the family of the defendant on his behalf.
Garcia has denied the allegations and has never been charged.
Another possible factor is a federal case against Garcia.
In the removal petition, Lopez noted that Garcia is also charged with wire fraud and money laundering in connection with an alleged scheme to help engineering contractors funnel more than $4 million in bribes to Weslaco city commissioners. Federal government prosecutors allege that, in exchange, these commissioners voted in favor of awarding contracts to those companies for the overhaul of the Weslaco’s water treatment facilities.
Garcia pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Gocha Ramirez, an attorney for Garcia in the removal case who is also representing him in the federal case, said their next hearing in federal court is set for June 16. He added that they just received a gigabyte worth of additional discovery on that federal case, and therefore don’t anticipate going to trial until either late this year or until next year.
“ In the meantime, Mr. Garcia, who’s a duly elected school board member has basically been stripped of his ability to participate as a school board member even though he was duly elected by the voters of Starr County,” Ramirez said.
“ Elections are now coming up in November again, and it’s anticipated that Mr. Garcia will probably not have gone to trial in the federal case by November,” he added. “So just overall, judge, we feel like Mr. Garcia has been denied due process in this case due to the length of this temporary suspension, due to the fact that no evidence has been presented to the court to support the allegations in the removal petition, and we feel that, at this time, it would be proper for the court to dismiss the removal, without prejudice, and allow either them to refile and get a quick trial or not refile.”
Starr County Attorney Victor Canales, who is representing the state in the case against Garcia, challenged the assertion that the temporary removal was not supported by evidence.
“ The court has met all its requirements pursuant to the statute and the statute has been held constitutional,” Canales said of the judge’s ruling to grant the temporary suspension. “They did submit depositions, they did submit documents, they had opportunity to submit affidavits, they chose not to; and so, the court actually ruled with evidence in its hand, frankly.”
Stith, however, acknowledged he was concerned about their inability to have jury trials, which could cause the case to last until the November school board elections.
The court coordinator for the 229th district court, where the case is being heard, said court staff would meet with 229th District Judge Baldemar Garza on Tuesday to discuss when they would likely resume trials in Starr County.
If trials are not able to resume until the fall, Ramirez stressed how that could jeopardize Garcia’s ability to run for re-election.
“ We’re going to have another legal bridge to cross unless we have his trial by September, maybe even earlier,” Ramirez said.
Another attorney for Garcia, Hilda Gonzalez Garza, then suggested that the judge rescind the order temporarily suspending Garcia but Canales, as an alternative, suggested holding a full-blown evidentiary hearing on the temporary suspension.
“ The problem is this — if Mr. Garcia is not able to have his day in court, as per the statute, and he is being temporarily suspended based upon the pleadings, what I have done, and that lasts all the way until November … then to me that is a problem of due process,” Stith said.
“ The statute anticipates a temporary removal subject to a hearing before a jury,” he added. “The problem is, because of COVID, we can’t have jury trials and so that presents a problem.”
Canales, though, pointed out that COVID-19 caused those same issues for everyone and tried to argue that the problems that arose in the case were practical as opposed to legal.
Stith said he would take their arguments under advisement and possibly make a decision during the next hearing, which he scheduled for June 17.