UPDATED: With Latest Indictment, Laredo Struggles to Put Corrupt Past Behind It
Update published on April 8, 2014: On Thursday, Webb County Attorney Marc Montemayor filed a petition in district court to remove County Commissioner Mike Montemayor from office. The county attorney, who is not related to Mike Montemayor, announced the filing during a press conference Friday.
The Texas Constitution allows district judges to remove county officials for “incompetency, official misconduct, habitual drunkenness, or other causes defined by law,” pending a jury trial.
The county attorney said in the filing that taxpayer money could be compromised if Commissioner Montemayor remains in office. The commissioner’s indictment and the alleged criminal activity he engaged in could jeopardize federal grants, the petition states.
The county attorney also filed for a restraining order against Montemayor, which would bar him from going near the county offices and from communicating with anyone in his precinct office. The commissioner may “continue his alleged criminal conduct, further jeopardizing county business,” the petition states.
The Texas Association of Counties doesn’t keep records pertaining to how often county officials are named for removal, but the situation “seems pretty rare,” Lonnie Hunt, county relations officer said.
“Obviously it’s a very unfortunate situation,” Hunt said. “There are almost 5,000 county officials around the state and the vast majority are doing a great job, often under very trying circumstances.”
Commissioner Montemayor has still not spoken publicly about the allegations.
Original story published on April 3, 2014: In 1978, before I was born, legendary Texas reporter Bill Moyers came to my hometown of Laredo, to expose the unabashed corruption of Mayor Joseph C. “Pepe” Martin in a CBS news documentary. Martin was the last in a long line of mythic Robin Hood-esque patróns, big men who ran local politics by buying elections, putting friends and business partners on the city’s payroll and serving as paternalistic figures for loyal voters. Martin decided not to run for re-election again in 1978 and was replaced by Aldo Tetangelo, the city’s first mayor under a reformed municipal system that took away power from the mayor and gave it to the city manager and council. Martin was convicted on one count of federal mail fraud, and was sentenced to serve his time on the weekends at Webb County Jail. Laredoans still speak of Mayor Martin and his legacy of corruption. Late into the 20th century, ritzy Clark Boulevard—where Martin lived in a two-story white home with Corinthian columns—was one of the few paved streets in town.
The days of Martin’s patrón dynasty may be gone, but the vestiges of that political system remain in Laredo, as demonstrated once again on March 19 when the FBI arrested Webb County Commissioner Mike Montemayor and charged him in federal court with two counts of bribery.
According to the indictment, Montemayor allegedly began accepting bribes in September 2012, before he was even sworn in and just a few months after he triumphed in the Democratic primary. The commissioner allegedly promised to secure government jobs for an unnamed person and their spouse in exchange for the use of a $37,000 Ford truck.
Between July 2013 and October 2013, well into his first year as county commissioner, Montemayor also allegedly accepted $11,000 in cash, two iPads, several iPhone chargers and pairs of high-end headphones from an undercover FBI agent in exchange for “official action and influence as County Commissioner to promote [the agent’s] business interests.” He posted bail the same day of his arrest, but did not show up to a March 24 Commissioners Court meeting. He entered a plea of not guilty last Wednesday, waiving his appearance at an arraignment hearing.
This isn’t the first allegation of misconduct Montemayor has faced; election season punditry in 2012 brought Montemayor’s previous criminal entanglements to light, as reported by former Laredo Morning Times reporter Andrew Kreighbaum. Laredo police arrested Montemayor in 2001 and charged him with public indecent exposure, and, later in 2008, the Webb County District Attorney’s office charged him with theft. Police did not file charges in the former arrest, and the district attorney dropped the latter charge.
Montemayor now joins a legacy of Webb County officials indicted on criminal charges. In 2006, former County Commissioner David Cortez was convicted of funneling almost $40,000 to commissioners in nearby Willacy County as part of a scheme to direct a prison-building contract to a particular company. Cortez was sentenced to three months in prison. Another former commissioner, Maria Centeno, pleaded no contest to felony drug charges in 2003 and was put on probation.
Webb County Attorney Marco Montemayor (no relation to Mike Montemayor) said his office knew nothing of the current federal investigation, nor of the commissioner’s actions, but said days after the commissioner’s arrest he was in the process of gathering information regarding the allegations. Commissioner Montemayor could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Corruption is a persistent problem at the county offices. In 2011, the FBI raided Webb County’s Community Action Agency when it found employees had allegedly misused state funds to weatherize homes for residents who did not qualify for help. The county fired 26 employees, and the investigation remains open as of last year.
In Laredo, you grow up hearing about elected officials’ unsavory conduct as if it were just a bad turn in the weather. There’s a feeling among the electorate that candidates with charisma or a family history in politics will prevail, whether or not they’re qualified for the office, and nothing can be done about it.
Laredo has always had its share of well-liked, colorful officials, and tales of their indiscretions remain a part of the public consciousness, though nothing seems to keep the “Montemayors” and “Cortezes” from getting elected.
Under Mayor Martin’s watch, city employees allowed raw sewage to flow, untreated, into the Rio Grande, forming the basis for legends that two-headed fish still swim in its milky-greenish depths today.
In Webb County, the breakdown of basic services like clean water and sanitation still occurs, and these kinds of hiccups are considered business as usual. Just last month, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fined Webb County $60,000 for almost 30 violations found last August at a wastewater treatment plant that serves the county’s rural communities. The water in the unincorporated towns of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo was undrinkable for three weeks, laden with E. coli, before the county repaired the plant.
Odie Arambula, former editor-in-chief of Laredo’s daily newspaper and local historian, lamented that “downtown, at the courthouse, everybody knows the way it is,” referring to the strain of corruption that runs through the political system.
“People are upset, yes, but they talk about it at lunch… at funeral homes,” Arambula said of the local circle of power’s reaction to Montemayor’s arrest. “They talk about it at social gatherings… but they don’t do a goddamn thing about it. Because they’re all involved in the sense that everybody’s related to everybody.”
Calls made to Montemayor went unreturned, though he did take to Facebook the day after his arrest and gave a shout-out to supporters.
“I’m confident this will all turn out for the best,” Montemayor said. “I wish I could say more, but I can’t.”
It remains unclear whether Commissioner Montemayor will remain on the court or not.
“I’m shocked, I really am,” Commissioner Rosaura “Wawi” Tijerina said of Montemayor’s indictment.
Tijerina — it should be mentioned— was also investigated last year by the county attorney on allegations of nepotism when she participated in a vote to promote her sister-in-law from a part-time position to full-time secretarial position. At the time, Tijerina claimed that she didn’t realize she was voting to give a salary increase to a relative. Tijerina is also the aunt of county judge primary winner Tano Tijerina, a former minor league baseball player. It is likely they will serve together on the Commissioners Court together next year. Que sera, sera.