Bexarly legit: Bexar County Democrats stuck in whirlwind of controversy, bad blood

If there was a single warning shot presaging the unraveling of the Bexar County Democratic Party, it would have been the June 2009 letter penned by precinct chair D’mitri Kosub warning party leaders that a close look at the books “has revealed a breakdown of the party’s financial underpinnings.” Kosub, troubled by hundreds of “unexplained” transactions by then-treasurer Dwayne Adams and former party chair Carla Vela, urged the party to take stock of its financial footing.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2010, just in time for a midterm election, and the situation had erupted: a lengthy investigation by the San Antonio Police Department and the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office led to Adams’ indictment on felony charges for siphoning off more than $200,000 from the party. Some prominent local Democrats began to splinter off from the Bexar Dems when it became clear the group, indebted to and sued by the county, simply didn’t have the funds to campaign.

Reeling from both the scandal and a midterm-election pounding, party leaders say they’re determined to pay off the debt and fix the appalling lack of oversight that made the embezzlement possible. But following the election of Dan Ramos as the new party chair last spring, many within the party have split into one of two factions. While both sides say they’re determined to move the party forward, they vehemently disagree on how to do it.

Ramos began to ruffle feathers almost immediately after being voted in. He quickly cut off the party’s treasurer and secretary from the BCDP’s bank account, making him the sole person with direct access to or knowledge of the party’s finances. Kosub, now chair of the party’s budget and finance committee, said his committee was essentially cut off from any financial information about the party.

When Ramos finally attended a budget and finance meeting, Kosub recalled, “`Ramos` laid out in no uncertain terms that the only way the committee would get financial information from him was to sue him.”

Ramos, Kosub said, “declared his intention to disband the committee, to dissolve the committee. … Members of his entourage threatened some of the committee members with physical violence.”

The budget and finance committee is one of the few tools the party has to exercise direct control over the chair, laying out a budget that he or she has to follow. “What it really boils down to for this committee is we’re tasked with oversight,” Kosub said. “The idea is that no one need trust anyone if all those checks and balances are working as they should.”

In the ensuing months, Ramos tried to fill some 400 vacant precinct chair spots on his own, something Kosub and the Texas Democratic Party say only the party’s executive committee as a whole can do.

Meanwhile, some prominent Democrats began to put distance between themselves and the BCDP. By August 2010, a privately run parallel organization, the Bexar County United Democrats, was formed, funded in part by contributions from the likes of County Judge Nelson Wolff, Henry Cisneros, and state Senators Leticia Van De Putte and Carlos Uresti. The group, which campaigned for Democratic candidates in the midterm election, has been inactive since November.

Mark Camann, a precinct chair with the party, said it was clear the creation of the Bexar County United Democrats made Ramos bristle. “It was a matter of finances — the party simply did not have the resources to campaign.” Still, he said, “Dan Ramos … perceived the entire effort as people working against him. … We had this trouble with Dan since his first meeting. He started insulting elected officials in the press, he started referring to Democrats who didn’t agree with him as racist.”

“My opposition to the chair has nothing to do with who he is,” Camann said. “It has entirely to do with what he has done since May, since he was elected.”

Ramos is quick to write off his detractors, saying, “Damn right, they don’t want me here because I’m a pain in their ass.” Ramos admits that he has taken a scorched-earth approach to the party since he was sworn in as chair, and insists there are more members who are still with the BCDP who should face criminal charges in the Adams scandal.

Ramos said it was at his request that the party’s pro-bono lawyer David Van Os began investigating former chair Carla Vela and eventually filed a civil suit against her in an effort to recoup some of the lost money. “I’m afraid we’re using Dwayne Adams as a whipping boy. While there’s no question he did wrong, there’s no way he did this alone,” Ramos said.

While Ramos has spread allegations far and wide, they have yet to peak the interest of District Attorney Susan Reed, the Texas Rangers, or the FBI, he said.

Ramos readily admits that he doesn’t trust anybody in the party who was in a position of power or oversight during the scandal. “Who knows who could be tainted? We just don’t know,” he said. “These people were the watchdogs. These people were supposed to be watching the money. What the hell were they doing?”

Even the new party headquarters has become a point of contention. Ramos’ office sits in a warehouse on the far West Side, marked by a pungent chemical smell from a previous tenant. Ramos laughed at the notion that some have opposed housing the party there, due to the odor, though several members say they have had to seek medical attention after meeting in the building. “They’ve denounced this part of town. They think it’s too Mexican,” he said. “They claim there’s all this crime.” In an interview with the Current, Ramos repeatedly charged that race was a motivating factor for many of his detractors. “I’ve said it before, this town is run by a bunch of white men.”

And while Ramos shies away from being called “anti-establishment,” he scoffs at the mention of many local elected Democrats — especially those who helped bankroll the Bexar County United Dems.

Despite crediting Kosub for being an early whistleblower, his distain for Kosub and Kosub’s criticism of him is obvious. “Why worry about the piss-ants when the elephants are stampeding? D’mitri is a piss-ant.”

Those opposed to Ramos’ tactics insist he has overstepped his bounds, and Camann, Kosub, and others say the chair seems intent on breaking the party’s standing rules at every step. Camann said he recently presented the Texas Democratic Party’s rules committee with a two-page list of alleged rules violations by Ramos.

Ramos, in turn, said he couldn’t care less about the BCDP’s continuing rules, insisting they’re out of line with Texas Democratic Party rules. “They wanna hang those rules around my neck. No way are they gonna shove those down my throat,” he said,

The lingering bad blood is almost palpable every time the party meets. “There’s a high deficit of trust within the Democratic party here,” said Jose Gallegos, the party’s current fundraising chair. “It’s like everybody’s contributing to this main problem, which is over who has control.”

In January, the party’s first meeting of the year descended into chaos. Ramos had planned to appoint new precinct officials himself, replacing some whom he called ineffective and others who he blamed for wrecking the party’s finances. By February, a whole new fight had emerged when the budget and finance committee unanimously voted to oust the party’s treasurer, Joseph Nazaroff. In his explanation to the party, Kosub said the decision was made to prevent the possibility of another scandal. “We are not saying Mr. Nazaroff is Dwayne Adams,” he told the County Executive Committee members gathered at the February 1 meeting. “We are once again presented with a treasurer who refuses to engage with the budget and finance committee. … We can no longer operate on trust alone.”

While Nazaroff repeatedly refused to meet with the budget and finance committee to discuss the party’s finances, he called his ouster a personal attack on his character. “I don’t really know how much more transparent I could have been,” he said, adding that he posted all treasurer reports on the party’s website where they were available for anyone to view. He had even made public the party’s monthly bank statements online until some members objected, saying Republicans shouldn’t be aware of such details.

“The only thing I did wrong, if you want to say that, is that I didn’t want to meet with D’mitri Kosub,” Nazaroff told the Current last week. “I didn’t feel like meeting with that asshole. They would just sit around the table and beat me up.”

Nazaroff, “fed up” with the party, said there should be a hard look at everyone within the BCDP allowed into a position of power since the embezzlement fiasco. At February’s meeting, Nazaroff stood in front of the party and bashed current party secretary Nancy Froment, Adams’ co-treasurer at the time of the alleged theft of party cash, as she sat merely six feet away. He used her past position as justification for his unwillingness to give her access to the party’s account. Froment defended herself, saying, “I was taken just like the rest of you. … I challenge anyone to come forward and show me where I’m guilty.”

And while Adams is the only one named in the county’s criminal indictments, both Adams and Vela are named in the party’s lawsuit. “It was a mismanagement and failure to keep up with the money,” attorney Van Os said, adding that he is still investigating the case, and that the party could file more suits down the road. “They (Adams and Vela) may not be the only ones,” he told the Current.

Citing pending mediation, Ramos tried to call off last week’s meeting days before the group was set to gather. Gallegos, an apparent Ramos supporter, said, “I’m saddened by the fact that he did not attend. … It seems that we are at an impasse, a gridlock, and we needed to move on. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”

While Nazaroff insists he’ll remain a dedicated Democrat, he’ll no longer work with the BCDP. “It’s a waste of time going to those meetings anymore. Useless,” he said.

At last week’s meeting, John Longoria, a local attorney and former state representative, county judge, and county commissioner pleaded with the BCDP to stop the in-fighting, saying, “We are not going to get anywhere by being angry at each other. … We don’t need to wash our laundry out in public and in the press. We have enough enemies.”

Mediation efforts have also gone nowhere, though both sides have agreed 379th District Judge Ron Rangel should be the one to bring the party together. While Ramos announced a mediation would be held this past Saturday at the office of local attorney Andrew Toscano, nobody showed. In an email to the Current, Rangel said while he was open to “any bilateral agreement to mediate in the future,” that “any arrangements will come directly from me.” •