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Kino Flores and Patron Politics

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Are old-school Patron style politics in South Texas dying out? The guilty verdict today in the trial of state Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, a Democrat from Palmview, is a warning shot across the bow to any South Texas elected official who believes otherwise.

The border region is too populated and too economically important to be mired in “pay to play” politics.  After 14 years in the state Legislature, Flores found himself in a Travis County courtroom Wednesday, with his reputation and political career in tatters.

Last year, Flores was indicted on 16 counts for not reporting more than $800,000 in income as well as gifts and properties in his financial disclosure statements filed since 2003. Elected officials are required to file disclosures with the Texas Ethics Commission every year they are in office.

After a two-day deliberation, jurors found Flores guilty on 11 counts of tampering with government documents and perjury. The charges could result in up to two years in a state jail and up to $10,000 in fines for each felony charge.

After the verdict, Flores, his face impassive, briefly conferred with his probation officer, then left the courtroom followed by his two sons, his sister, some employees and his legal team. The normally animated Flores was unusually silent and declined to speak to the press.

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was in the courtroom as the jury announced their verdict. Lehmberg said she thought the verdict would reverberate with other elected officials. “This is very significant,” she said. “This is the public saying to elected officials that they expect them to maintain the highest ethical standards with accurate and full public disclosures. It’s not an acceptable excuse to say they “didn’t know” or the form was “too hard.’”

One of Flores’ chief arguments was that he was a paid consultant and that it wasn’t necessary to list who he consulted for on the financial statements. Some of these companies included the Houston-based Dannenbaum Construction, McAllen Medical Center and InterNational Bank. Many had business before the powerful Licensing and Administrative Procedures committee where he served as chair.

Flores will report to the Travis County courthouse on November 22 for a pre-sentencing trial. He chose to have the judge exact his punishment rather than a jury. This was probably the right choice, judging from juror Vickie Curry’s comments after the trial.

“The people of Texas need to hold their elected officials accountable,” said the 52-year old bus driver outside the courtroom. “He filed his W2 forms. He sure didn’t mess with the federal government and the IRS,” she says. “He shouldn’t think the people of Texas who elected him are any different.”

The jury was a racially diverse group of people ranging from young college students to elderly retirees. Curry said they deliberated until 10:00 Tuesday night then reconvened the following morning before finally coming to a verdict around noon. Curry said some of the younger people on the jury didn’t think what Flores had done was such a big deal. “There were like ‘what it’s just some forms,” she said.  “But the older people disagreed. It’s about transparency and holding your elected leaders accountable.”

Travis County Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox revealed during the trial that it was a Medicaid fraud investigation in the Valley that tipped off investigators to Flores. “They wanted to know why a state official was receiving regular payments from someone being investigated for fraud,” Cox told the court. That individual was Eliseo Sandoval who is currently serving 10 years, after pleading guilty to Medicaid fraud. Flores took more than $40,000 from Sandoval. The representative claimed he was advising Sandoval on deer breeding and ranch management.

For such a powerful Hidalgo County politician it was surprising to see how few people were in the courtroom during the trial. The representative’s two sons, one of his sisters and a few of his employees sat in the courtroom. Flores seldom made eye contact with any of them.

Cox said it was difficult to find anyone in the Valley who would come to Austin and testify. “There was a lot of reluctance,” he said. “He’s still in office and he’s a powerful person in the Valley.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.