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Sheriff Lupe Treviño testifies in Panama Unit trial

Posted on

August 3, 2013


Son of Sheriff arrested by FBIMan who threatened Sheriff Found Dead

After four days of testimony in the trial of former deputy Jorge Garza, defense attorney Lilly Ann Gutierrez subpoenaed Treviño as a witness for the defense.
Serious Allegations

James Phil Flores, another former deputy who pleaded guilty in the case, continued his testimony on Thursday morning. Flores testified that he and other deputies were forced to buy fundraiser tickets for Treviño’s re-election campaign.

The former deputy also testified that he even turned to drug traffickers to pay for fundraising meals. Flores testified that one deputy had to take a loan to buy one of the expensive fundraising ticket books. The drug conspiracy trial of a former lawman took a dramatic turn Friday, when allegations shifted from the defendant to Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño, who took the stand and countered allegations of corruption lodged by former deputies and a drug trafficker.

On Friday morning, the county’s top cop approached the bench of U.S. District Judge Randy Crane and said he wanted to testify. Crane told Treviño that based on the testimony from other witnesses, there have been allegations of criminal activity and asked if the sheriff had consulted with an attorney. The judge added that he didn’t know if Treviño was the target of an investigation or not.   “You might be,” Crane told the sheriff. The judge asked Treviño if he wished to invoke the Fifth Amendment, which protects him again self-incrimination.

But unlike one of his top leaders, the sheriff sat down and agreed to talk, saying he has no lawyer but knows his rights. “As an elected official I believe the people have a right to hear my testimony,” Treviño said. “I have nothing to hide.” Garza, the deputy on trial is accused of doing fake traffic stops so convicted drug dealers could dupe other drug dealers into thinking their loads were seized when in fact they were stolen.

Once he took the stand, Gutierrez began asking dozens of question about the command structure of the department and his role in fundraising. During the trial, former deputy and convicted drug trafficker James Phil “J.P.” Flores said that deputies were subjected to a reign of terror under Cmdr. Jose “Joe” Padilla and were forced to participate in fundraisers for the sheriff’s political campaigns. During his testimony, Treviño described Padilla as an “old school cop from the 70’s” who posed and authoritative figure. “What you are describing Miss Gutierrez is a bully,” Treviño said.

The sheriff said that he has spoken with Padilla about his demeanor after two other deputies complained about his harsh personality. “If Flores was being mistreated I see no reason why he would not have gone to my office to complain about treatment or mistreatment,” Treviño said. Padilla was subpoenaed on Thursday, but pleaded the Fifth Amendment after being told that he was the target of a federal investigation. In addition to Padilla, Hidalgo County District Attorney’s investigator Charlie Vela also pleaded the Fifth Amendment.

Vela had been implicated by convicted drug trafficker Fernando Guerra in the theft of cash from drug traffickers as well as scaring off angry drug dealers that the Guerra’s group had ripped off. Gutierrez asked the sheriff why he hadn’t done the same as District Attorney Rene Guerra, who fired Vela that afternoon and terminated Padilla after his refusal to testify. Treviño said that Vela had been implicated in felonious acts while Padilla had only been mentioned in administrative matters and not criminal acts of a felonious nature. Treviño said that if the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the FBI would call him about the investigation against Padilla, he would open an internal affairs case. The sheriff said that if the witnesses who made the allegations went to his office and filled an affidavit he would also open an investigation. “What would I investigate him for, pleading the fifth?”

Treviño said. I’m not going to be impulsive and jump the gun.” “You are protecting him,” Gutierrez said. “That is absurd, I can’t believe you said that” Treviño retorted. “My concern is about not violating his civil rights; I have enough lawsuits already. Gutierrez asked the sheriff about the Flores collecting money from the Guerra’s toward buying him a boat. Guerra’s son testified that he had given Flores $5,000, while Flores testified that he had collected $1,000. “If anyone did, they used my name to collect the money and kept it,” Treviño said, adding that he had never heard about those allegations until he saw news and tweets about the testimony regarding the boat and a reporter who called, seeking comment. The sheriff said he does own a fishing boat that is valued at $25,000 — purchased with a check.

The sheriff denied having any knowledge of the Guerra’s criminal activity and claimed he was not active in the fundraising drives for his campaign rather letting committees handle that.-“The only money I received from the Guerra’s was a $1,000 check from Astro Trucking, which back then I didn’t know it was the Guerra’s or who they were for that matter,” Treviño said. “I don’t believe I ever received cash from the Guerra’s.”The sheriff is expected to continue his testimony on Monday morning.

As he walked out of the courthouse, Treviño mumbled “who’s the one on trial?”

Prior to Treviño taking the stand, jurors heard testimony from former deputy and convicted drug trafficker Fabian Rodriguez, who testified that he worked closely with the Panama Unit and eventually became a member. The Panama Unit was a street level drug task force made up by sheriff’s deputies and Mission police. Their arrests garnered have media attention since one of the members, Jonathan Trevino, is the sheriff’s son, while Alexis Espinoza, son of Hidalgo Police Chief Rudy Espinoza, was not officially on the unit, but frequently associated himself with its members, Rodriguez said. According to Rodriguez, the unit was outside of the chain of command, with Jonathan Treviño handing down orders with an iron fist to the extent that the group’s leader, Sgt. Roy Mendez, had to check in with Jonathan before making any decisions.“I went from one monster to another — from Padilla to Jonathan,” Rodriguez said. Rodriguez testified that to the best of his knowledge, the sheriff never saw any money stolen by the Panama Unit. But the corrupt lawman said Jonathan Treviño always wanted a bigger cut of the drug proceeds and would skim off the top from some of the deals.

Recap points Sheriff Responds During a press conference for a murder case, Sheriff Treviño fired back against the allegations being raised in federal court. Sheriff Treviño told Action 4 News that he denies any wrongdoing and that anyone who worked on his campaign did it strictly on a voluntary basis. The sheriff, whose son Jonathan Treviño pleaded guilty to his role in the Panama Unit scandal, said forced campaigning on county time was not allowed. Sheriff Treviño added that he once fired an employee who campaigned on county time. “If you are going to work on my campaign as a personal employee you are going to do it on your own personal time,” the sheriff said.
The sheriff also strongly denied allegations that he forced deputies to sell and buy tickets. “It’s absolutely absurd,” Sheriff Treviño said. “I don’t believe JP Flores would ever say Sheriff Trevino required him (to sell tickets). ” Sheriff Treviño said he only makes appearances but does not deal with the money when it comes to campaign fundraising. “It’s common knowledge that I do not participate in fundraising activities,” the sheriff said McALLEN — The drug conspiracy trial of a former Hidalgo County sheriff’s deputy has persistently turned attention to his one-time boss, Sheriff Lupe Treviño, who in a dramatic turn took the stand Friday morning to respond to allegations of illegal campaign fundraising tactics and how much he knew of his deputies’ illicit activities. Jorge Garza, a retired warrant officer accused of helping to steal drug loads from smugglers for resale, is the only former lawman to stand trial in a scandal that has brought down the sheriff’s son and called into question the integrity of Treviño, who has cast himself as a model lawman in a region where many have fallen victim to corruption. Another eight have pleaded guilty to federal charges, including several members of a now-defunct multi-department, anti-narcotics task force called the Panama Unit. Now in its fourth day, Garza’s trial has increasingly raised questions about culture of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department that instilled unwavering loyalty to the sheriff and fear of his commanders. A day after James Phil “J.P.” Flores, a former lawman involved in the case, testified about an intimidating office environment where employees were expected to raise money for the sheriff’s various fundraising events, another former Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Deputy Fabian Rodriguez, testified that you either played ball or face reprisals. “(Joe Padilla) put fear in you,” Rodriguez testified about his former commander. “I’m fearing telling you this right now.” Garza’s defense attorney, Lilly Ann Gutierrez, subpoenaed several men implicated in the scandal, including Padilla and Charlie Vela, an investigator for the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office who was promptly fired Thursday after invoking his 5th amendment right not to testify. Undaunted, Gutierrez subpoenaed Treviño who agreed to testify.



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