Bexar Met's secret soldiers

On May 10, 2007, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources met at 8 a.m. on the first floor of the Pink Dome, just a short walk from the central rotunda. A certain lawyer from San Antonio filled out the public-comment card to speak about House Bill 1565, leaving blank the line where officials, lobbyists, and other spokespeople would normally write the name of the organization on whose behalf they’re testifying. An hour and 12 minutes into the hearing Chairman Kip Averitt called the lawyer to the panel to testify.

“If you would, state your name and who you represent,” Averitt asked.

“Chairman Averitt, my name is Rolando Rios. I’m a voting-rights lawyer from San Antonio, Texas.”

The lawyer went on to argue against the bill sponsored by Senator Carlos Uresti, which would have dissolved Bexar Metropolitan Water District’s elected board. A new board, controlled primarily by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and the Commissioners Court, would take over water management for more than 240,000 users in four counties.                

In that morning’s San Antonio Express-News, columnist Carlos Guerra gave readers a teaser of Rios’s testimony: The bill would infringe on Latino majorities’ abilities to elect their preferred candidates, and therefore violate the Voting Rights Act. Guerra billed Rios as the Latino voters’ champion, a hero who has lost only three of more than 250 Voting Rights Act lawsuits.

Guerra then quoted LULAC National Legal Advisor Luis Vera, who threatened to sue the state if the bill passed. A week later Vera put that threat on paper, two pages of his LULAC letterhead with the signatures of LULAC’s National President Rosa Rosales and Texas State Director Roger Rocha, and sent it to the Texas Senate.

The twist: As of May 4, Rios and Vera were working for the Bexar Metropolitan Water District.

The duo had co-signed a 30-day retainer agreement with BexarMet’s General Manager Gil Olivares. For $20,000, Rios and Vera agreed to prepare all the documentation necessary to make a Voting Rights Act argument against HB 1565, and testify before the Senate committee. The fee included the preparation of the poster-sized map Rios used to illustrate his argument.

In Rios’s case, the Bexar Met contract is ironic; Rios had sued the hell out of Bexar Met in the late ’90s because they elected their board members at large, as opposed to by districts, which marginalized Latino voters. Actually, Rios says, he’s been alternately suing and working for BexarMet as a consultant for about five years.

So why didn’t he say so to the Committee?

“I don’t know, they didn’t ask me,” Rios says. “But yes, I’ve been working on and off for BexarMet for five years.”

While Rolando Rios & Associates was the primary firm hired, the contract also included Vera, Attorney at Law, but he was chosen because of the other hats he wears: Litigation-steerer and unregistered lobbyist for LULAC.

“This is one of those cases where we wanted to have `Vera` also on because I think LULAC had grounds to sue if the state adopted a plan that would violate the Voting Rights Act,” Rios said. “Also, `Vera` knows a lot of the legislators and he could help us get a better input on these bills.”

LULAC came out against the bill, with Vera promising in his communique that they’d fight any change whatsoever to BexarMet’s election system. He also threatened to take LULAC’s case to the Department of Justice, which would have to approve the bill first. If that failed, LULAC would sue in federal district courts.

A paradoxical moment, indeed, for Vera: At the time, he still had 12 days of employment with BexarMet left, and under Texas law, “a lawyer shall not represent opposing parties to the same litigation.” Although Olivares waived the conflict of interest in the agreement, the contract’s terse one-liner may not have met the standards required by law and the Texas State Bar to be credible with the DOJ or in court.

But the bill didn’t pass, and if another Express-News columnist, Jaime Castillo, is to be trusted, a potential costly Voting Rights Act suit was the object of the legislature’s reluctance, particularly Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst’s.

That’s even more troubling: While it’s bad enough misrepresenting oneself to a newspaper, a Senate subcommittee is an altogether different beast. Theoretically speaking, the Legislature may have voted differently had they known the two Voting Rights Act witnesses weren’t acting as independently as they let on. And according to article 305.021 of the Texas government code, it is a Class A misdemeanor to make a false or misrepresentative statement, verbally or on paper, to a member of the legislature “for the purpose of influencing legislation.”

Rios kept quiet about his affiliation with BexarMet during his testimony; Vera filed paperwork with the Senate as a LULAC constitutional officer even though the information was actually paid for by BexarMet. Now, we’re not saying they did anything illegal, but ...

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