Note: Could massive corruption be part of the equation of "safest"
city and reason the Cd. Juarez / El Paso "plaza" is being fought over
so intensely? Corruption not limited to El Paso.
Scandals give area black eye: Officials face uphill battle to restore
By Marty Schladen and Chris Roberts / El Paso Times
Posted: 02/26/2012 12:00:00 AM MST
Scandals continue to rock the El Paso area, and experts say they are
creating a sense of hope and hopelessness.
The arrest Wednesday of County Commissioner Willie Gandara Jr., along
with the torrent of leaders implicated in the FBI's public-corruption
investigation and questionable activities at the El Paso Police
Department and in local communities, is hammering at the mindset of
residents, said experts and local elected officials.
Gandara's arrest on drug charges was a surprise to many.
It comes after the convictions of two former county judges, the
indictment of a third and a growing public-corruption investigation
that has produced 40 arrests or indictments.
Experts with significant experience with government corruption said
it's important to maintain hope -- and to have a long-term plan to
bring about meaningful reform.
The area also has been hit with other troubles:
Five former El Paso police officers -- the most recent on Feb. 16 --
have been indicted after an investigation into irregularities in
overtime pay linked to grant-funded traffic enforcement. They are
accused of falsifying records to collect money from a state grant.
On Feb. 13, the Texas Rangers and the FBI searched the home of
longtime Anthony (Texas) Mayor Art Franco. News reports have said
that the law enforcement agencies suspect misappropriation of funds,
but Franco has denied that.
Fernando Rodriguez, director of UTEP's Criminal Justice Program, was
placed on paid administrative leave earlier this month as
administrators investigate whether to try to discipline him for not
following university policies. Rodriguez failed to report years of
outside work -- including his pivotal role in a contract that is at
the heart of the latest developments in El Paso's public-corruption
In Sunland Park, the mayor pro tem and the city manager were arrested
Saturday on extortion charges in a political race.
"Right now, it seems like a never-ending stream," Mayor John Cook
said. "You ask, 'Who's next?' "
All the news of arrests and indictments is affecting people
differently, he said.
"Some say the system works because we're catching people," Cook said.
"The ones I worry about are painting this with a broad brush."
Chicago residents know well what it's like to see the officials they
elected frog-marched off to jail.
Since 1976, a third of the city's aldermen have been convicted of
corruption, according to a report released Feb. 15 by researchers at
the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Four of Illinois' seven governors since 1970 also have been convicted
-- including Rod Blagojevich, who tried to sell President Barack
Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat. In all, Illinois has seen 1,828
people convicted on public-corruption charges since 1976, the report
All that law enforcement has failed to bring about lasting change,
said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who now heads the
political science department and was the lead author of the
University of Illinois at Chicago report.
"Individual corruption convictions do not cure corruption; they
almost never have," Simpson said on Thursday. "We have a 150-year
history of it here."
The democratic process is weakened when public trust is damaged,
experts said. A lack of trust creates a dangerous void, they said,
which can lead to a downward spiral.
Honest people not involved in illegal schemes tend to stop
participating, whether that means deciding against a run for office
or not to vote, said Bruce A. Huhmann, chairman of New Mexico State
University's Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative. And lack of
participation makes it easier for people with selfish agendas to gain
positions of political power, he said.
"That trust takes a long time to build, and it's easy to destroy,"
Huhmann said. "It harms the government's ability to do its job."
Corruption also damages the public psyche, said Mario Rivera,
University of New Mexico Regents' Professor of public administration.
Trust is higher in cultures with economic equality, he said, where
parents feel their children will be able to do better than they did.
More people volunteer, and honest people run for office, he said.
"They see a shared fate for everyone," he said. "(Corruption)
undercuts that in very vicious ways. Only people who are connected or
wired are going to do well. ... And there's a sense that the wealthy
have gotten wealthy from unfair advantage."
And corruption has its own culture, Rivera said.
"People have a higher or exclusive loyalty to some sort of in-group,"
Rivera said. "And their criteria for serving some people over others
Historic examples of such groups, he said, include the political
machines in Chicago and Louisiana, and the patronage system in New
Cook said he believes that in El Paso, the cases that have attracted
the attention of law enforcement in recent years used to represent
the normal way business was done by many elected officials.
He said a "new breed" of officials, such as he and city Reps. Susie
Byrd and Steve Ortega have helped combat corruption. Indictments and
convictions have also sent a message to elected officials who might
be considering some crooked act in exchange for sums of money that
often are shockingly small, Cook said.
"Not only is it going to cost you money, it's going to cost you your
reputation and in some cases your family," Cook said.
But more is needed, said Simpson of the University of Illinois at
Chicago. At the heart of any solution is a commitment to a broad plan
that spans decades.
"It can be done, but it isn't easy or simple," he said.
Simpson has proposed a series of reforms for Chicago government, such
as applying the city's ethics ordinance to aldermen and their staffs
and giving the inspector general access to all city records,
including those held in secret by the corporation counsel -- the
Illinois name for a city attorney.
Huhmann, of New Mexico State, said reforms in his state are well
"In New Mexico, there are a lot of people now trying to turn the
system around," Huhmann said. "The state has passed a law that all
public employees have to have some ethics training each year."
NMSU is creating an ethics training program for state employees,
Huhmann said. And New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez's political
appointees also have received ethics training, he said.
"I think the culture in New Mexico is starting to turn around,"
Huhmann said. "It's amazing how much you can get done when you have
But restoring honesty in government will add another burden for
"If you have to be worried about your public officials, you have to
put in checks and balances," Huhmann said. "If you change the rules
and add extra layers of security and all, those things are going to
Audits can ensure that public money is not stolen, the experts said.
Procurement reform, including the process initiated by the El Paso
County Commissioners Court to choose a new financial adviser, add
time and can require additional resources.
"It does cost money, but we have to know that they're (elected
officials) taking steps to show the county commission is honest,"
Huhmann said. "People need to feel that, 'We've uncovered all the
wrongdoings. Everybody who's bad is now out and now we're going to
In addition to changing the way financial advisers are chosen, El
Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar has championed other reforms,
including a beefed-up county ethics ordinance and more transparent
But more fundamental things are needed, she said, listing among them
an aggressive, responsible news media, ethical, aggressive law
enforcement and an active, engaged citizenry.
Escobar said she is working to attract honest, talented candidates to
run for office in the next election cycle instead of allowing so many
incumbents to run unopposed. "I still am optimistic," Escobar said.
Just feet from El Paso, Juárez residents probably have more reason
for pessimism than in any city in the United States.
"The government here never did the right thing," said Hernan Ortiz, a
professor at Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez.
He described a society in which black-market vendors bribe officials
to avoid paying taxes, depriving the public of much-needed revenue
for such purposes as an effective mass-transit system.
"Everyone knows about it," Ortiz said.
Likening the ruling class in Juárez to a royal court of the Middle
Ages, Ortiz said the city sets aside $700,000 a year for college
scholarships, while it is spending $2.3 million on a metal sculpture
for the Chamizal park that is of dubious artistic value and is taking
an inordinately long time to complete.
"It's a red X like you got something bad on your exam," Ortiz said.
Though Juárez lacks a tradition of an honest government and shows
scant evidence of one now, Ortiz hasn't given up the most basic
element of reform -- hope.
"It's not the government that makes things happen in Ciudad Juárez,
it's the people," Ortiz said. "I think people have hope in people."
Cook holds similar hopes for the people of El Paso. "The everyday
person needs to get involved in what their officials are doing," the
mayor said. "Hold them to task. There are honest people out there and
dishonest people out there."