Drunk With Power

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We’ve been called to the Rio Grande Valley to investigate another rogue government agency that’s supposed to be using tax dollars to bring more business to town. What we found were some folks who are drunk with power.

“You can’t discuss anything about anything? When was that rule passed?” Asked Wayne Dolcefino.

“Can I tell you something? I don’t play games,” Dolcefino said.

“Neither do I. Do we need to call the police?” Asked David Favila.

“Go ahead. Call the police,” Dolcefino responded.

Meet my new buddy.

He’s the PR guy for the city of San Benito, Texas.

It’s a little town southeast of Harlingen, just twenty miles north of the Rio Grande, and the welcome mat is clearly not out.

“Smart ass,” Dolcefino said.

“Yeah, I’m the smart ass. You’re coming into my place of business,” Favila said.

Oh no! He’s going to call the cops on me! That’s never happened before.

“Yep, go ahead. Call the police,” Dolcefino said.

While we wait for the local law to show up to this city hall showdown, let me tell you about the crime I’m supposedly committing.

We had come to see city secretary, Ruth McGinnis.

For weeks, she was too chicken—I mean busy—to return any of our calls, so they trotted out this former local sports reporter to deal with us.

“Well she’s not available right now,” Favila said.

“OK. I’ll wait,” Dolcefino responded.

“Well, you are going to be waiting a while,” Favila said.

We simply wanted to look at campaign finance records of elected officials, and San Benito was illegally hiding them.

“The law says that any citizen can come into this office during any regular business day and look at election-related records. That’s the law,” Dolcefino said.

The law does not require to put the request in writing, and new Texas law says it should be online to make it even easier for everyone to see.

We had played nice with these folks for weeks, but it hadn’t worked.

“My suggestion to you is to make the request,” Favila said.

 “We did,” Dolcefino answered.

“I do not believe you did, because she would have honored it,” Favila responded.

“You calling me a liar?” Dolcefino asked.

“I’m not calling you a liar,” Favila answered.

Don’t want facts to ruin a good government comedy show, but here is that request.

“Why are you calling the police? Really? You trying to hide stuff from the public?” Dolcefino asked.

And when the cops did come, they were cool.

And, they knew I was right.

“Even if I would try and force them, I can’t force him,” officer Valdez said.

“I didn’t call you, they did,” responded Dolcefino.

But, it wouldn’t be the last time that day that a San Benito public servant would try and sic the law on me.

“Chief?” Said Deborah Morales.

We had tried to talk to city commissioner, Deborah Morales, before the city council meeting had started.

“Is there a law against talking to her?” Dolcefino asked

“We’ll wait after the meeting, but if she doesn’t want to speak to you, sir…” said the police chief.

“That doesn’t mean I have to stop asking her questions, chief. No offense,” Dolcefino responded.

I was about to give the San Benito city council an earful over this illegally withholding of public records.

“I’ve been in the journalism investigative business for 50 years. Even in the most corrupt towns, they knew that campaign finance records are public records. I’ve authorized our attorneys and our staff to file a criminal complaint with the Cameron County district attorney’s office,” Dolcefino said.

“I’m not going to take any questions right now,” Michael Pruneda told Dolcefino.

“You denied us the right to see campaign records. That’s illegal,” Dolcefino said.

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” Pruneda responded.

And he’s not even the city’s lawyer, he’s the lawyer for the San Benito economic development corporation, who asked the attorney general to help them hide campaign records and the EDC’s financial records.

“Doesn’t the public have a right to see these records? What are you hiding?” Dolcefino asked.

What’s up with these folks?

They call San Benito the Resaca City, a term used to describe the tributaries that hang off the Rio Grande for irrigation.

But, that word has another meaning across the Hispanic world.

“In some Spanish speaking countries, resaca means hangover,” Paul Serafy told us.

Maybe that explains what’s going on here. Some of these folks are drunk with power.

“It really sounded like a government shakedown,” Dolcefino said to Serafy.

“And that’s how we felt, and that’s how we still feel,” Serafy said.

Paul Serafy works for Varco, a big valley real estate developer that’s already invested eight million dollars into what will be, eventually, the city’s nicest shopping center.

The Resaca Village shopping center on highway 77, it’s still under construction, but a lot of tenants have moved into the first buildings completed.

Yet, the EDC has decided they want to take control of the buildings being developed on government property and all the rents that are coming in.

But, why?

This place was originally bought with a government grant 11 years ago.

San Benito EDC was going to build a new museum here.

“Music icon and birthday boy, Freddy Fender, returned to the valley for a special dedication,” a news reporter said.

Including a new Freddy Fender museum.

Yep, San Benito is his hometown. But, It never happened.

“They approached us with this project. We weren’t seeking out an opportunity to develop in San Benito,” Serafy told us.

The project is behind schedule, COVID and supply chain issues mostly.

And, it hasn’t been easy to find tenants for a shopping center in a town that’s starving for economic development.

But last August, Varco says it was approached by this guy, Jose Morales, a new member of the EDC, with a threat: Suddenly pay the city an exorbitant lump sum payment to keep the buildings and all the rents coming in, or get thrown out.

The huge investment would be lost.

Morales had been appointed to the EDC with the help of his wife Deborah Morales, who was now a member of the city commission.

Debra Morales had been trying to kill the original deal made with Varco for a few years now.

“So there is a personal agenda that Deborah Morales has against Varco and this project,” Serafy said.

Maybe they were just trying to squeeze some more money for the town’s coffers.

Varco is plenty suspicious, in a part of the state where public corruption is not so hard to find.

“They either want to kick us out and give it over to somebody that they know and they want to operate it. It could be a family member or it could be a friend,” Serafy said.

There is a pattern of conduct in San Benito that taxpayers there should be demanding answers about.

Next year was supposed to be the opening of the first phase of another project called the Epicenter, a $750,000,000 entertainment mecca for San Benito.

But, the developers blame the Morales family for removing their required incentives to make the deal happen.

The sign for Epicenter is now gone.

Now what might have been a hotel and convention center is an empty field.

So, why are Deborah Morales and her husband trying to chase away folks willing to invest in this town?

Isn’t that the exact opposite of what an EDC should do?

“I’ve got a question for you, I’ve talked to a couple of developers—” Dolcefino said.

“I cannot discuss anything with you,” Debra Morales said.

“You can’t discuss anything? About anything? When was that rule passed? We’ve had two developers no say that you are responsible for killing these deals,” Dolcefino said.

Including that Resaca Village shopping center that is barreling towards completion.

“The two developers that have been interested in this have been treated terribly by the city commission and by the EDC, whose mission it is to bring jobs and development to the city,” Serafy said.

In November, the EDC did another extension to their contract.

Varco agreed to pay $500 a day in damages for any additional delays.

They’ve been paying the money, but the EDC hasn’t cashed the checks.

“They haven’t really acted sensibly, they haven’t acted reasonably towards somebody who’s investing $10,000,000 in their community,” said Serafy.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the developers filed a lawsuit in recent weeks because they have so many millions invested here.

The EDC moved forward with plans to evict Varco.

In stark contrast to our welcome to San Benito city hall, Justice of the Peace Judge, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, let us bring our camera in to record the eviction proceedings.

Good for him.

“We’re asking the court to order the defendant surrender possession of the real property and the premises,” said an attorney for the EDC.

The EDC argued that, even though they had agreed to the latest extension of the contract, city council never voted.

So, the EDC was, basically, going back on its written word.

“They pulled the rug out from under us in trying to complete this,” Serafy said in court.

They wanted the judge to simply ignore that signed agreement.

“The court has seen what the claim is,” said an attorney for the EDC.

“I still don’t know what the claim is,” said Judge Garcia.

He didn’t buy it and denied the eviction.

“We think the judge did the right thing, plain and simple, did the right thing,” said Serafy.

Back at city hall, I was laying down the law about the public records being kept from us.

“If I don’t get them tomorrow morning, then I guess we’re going to go to war. Just letting you know,” Dolcefino said.

Guess my promise worked, because the very next morning, the records started trickling in.

And we finally got to see campaign records for Mrs. Morales, who was first elected to office four years ago.

We note that one of her biggest campaign contributors is a guy named Cesar Ornelas.

He’s a personal injury attorney in San Antonio.

We found this article from 2019 from the Albuquerque Journal detailing an alleged barratry scheme.

Another law firm claiming it involved secret kickbacks by the Ornelas law firm to funeral home directors.

No one was ever charged.

But, Mrs. Morales and her husband Jose, they’re in the funeral business, claiming to service 97 percent of the funeral homes in the Rio Grande Valley—a great way for lawyers to learn about dead folks.

And when we brought up her husband, that’s when Debra Morales tried to get the police chief to stop us.

“Sir, I cannot answer any questions. We’re under litigation,” Debra Morales told Dolcefino.

“You got your husband on the EDC. You think that’s the right thing to do? That’s got nothing to do with litigation,” Said Dolcefino.

There’s something else to share as we widen our investigation of public officials in San Benito.

We came across a public record on one of the newer board members, John Flores.

He was appointed in 2023.

Here’s another photo of a John Flores who looks exactly like him, but this one was a mugshot from a sex offender data base.

John Flores had been convicted of sexually abusing his thirteen-year-old niece.

He has to register for life, but failed to report that he had moved from Houston to San Benito.

That’s a crime.

San Benito police acted on our tip and arrested Flores last weekend.

Kudos to them.

“He was seen by a judge Saturday morning. He made bond and is probably on his way back to Houston to tell whatever sad sack story he wants to tell Houston PD,” San Benito Detective, Manuel Alvarez told us.

What’s the comment from San Benito City Hall? Good question.

Our buddy is back.

“I can discuss it with the city manager. I wouldn’t have one to give you,” Favila said.

“I’m looking for a reaction. Does anybody care there?” asked Andrea Palacio, reporter.

We’re watching the city’s next moves in the case of the Resaca Village.

Will San Benito tax payers now have to pay the unnecessary costs of another big legal fight or will it do what EDCs are supposed to be doing—help private developers bring jobs and money to a town that clearly needs it?

“We hope that the EDC will work with us on things ribbon cuttings and promoting the property,” Serafy said.

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