Taxpayers paid for training conference that Barrientes Vela skipped, again

Embattled constable claims she was needed elsewhere while 2018 event took place

CORPUS CHRISTIEditor’s note: Watch KSAT 12′s 10 p.m. Nightbeat newscast for more on this Defenders investigation. The headline of this story has been updated.

For the second time in six weeks, the KSAT 12 Defenders have uncovered records that show Bexar County Precinct 2 Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela used county funds to pay for law enforcement training that she and other top officials from her agency never took part in.

The records, provided by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) and the Bexar County Auditor's Office, are connected to TCOLE's annual training coordinators' conference held in Corpus Christi last October.

ON THE NIGHTBEAT As embattled Precinct 2 Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela sues to try and keep her job, we found more records of her and her administration charging taxpayers for training they did not take. See you at 10 o’clock.

Posted by KSAT Dillon Collier on Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The revelation comes days after the FBI and Texas Rangers raided Barrientes Vela's Northwest Side offices and seized her county vehicle from her home, amid a criminal investigation into the first-term constable.

MORE: 10 controversies surrounding embattled Precinct 2 Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela

As agents took part in the 10-hour raid last Monday, Barrientes Vela announced plans to run for Bexar County sheriff in 2020.

Since she has more than 13 months left in her current term, the public declaration, made on camera to a KSAT 12 reporter, triggered the state's resign-to-run law.

County commissioners are scheduled to formally announce a replacement for Barrientes Vela Wednesday morning, despite a lawsuit filed Monday by Barrientes Vela that attempted to block them from doing so.

She will remain in office until at least October 11, when a district court judge will hold a hearing on the temporary restraining order filed by Barrientes Vela.

LATEST: Judge delays replacement of Pct. 2 Constable Barrientes Vela; names of 29 applicants released

Since announcing her plan to run for sheriff, Barrientes Vela has tried to walk back what she said repeatedly, claiming in a written statement released Saturday that she made the announcement while in shock over the raid.

Corpus Christi no shows

County auditor records show Barrientes Vela filed an expense report for more than $460 in registration fees in July 2018 after signing up herself, Chief Deputy Anthony Castillo and Captain Marc Garcia for the four-day TCOLE conference at the American Bank Center.

TCOLE records, however, show that none of them attended a single session.

A fourth member of the agency, Lieutenant Jeremy Miner, attended all 11 sessions, records show.

"She paid for three people to go. None of them went and then you had a lieutenant who went in their place. Is that fair to taxpayers?" the Defenders asked public policy researcher George Scott.

"It's called bank shot ethics. No, it's not fair. It's disrespectful. It's callously contemptuous of the people who have elected you to serve their interest," said Scott.

Barrientes Vela used a county credit card for the purchase, then filed an expense report and the county paid off the balance.

The embattled constable has repeatedly refused to answer questions publicly about the trip, including during a press conference in late August in which she announced plans to seek another term in office and last week when Judge Nelson Wolff announced the county's plans to remove her from office.

In a written statement released Sept. 19, Barrientes Vela said:

Mr. Collier

I appreciate your request for an on air interview, however, I don't believe this inquiry necessitates an in person response. First off, you are absolutely correct when you state that my Chief Deputy, Captain and I did not attend the 2018 TCOLE Conference held in Corpus Christi, TX. I'd also like to point out that I did send an alternate representative on our behalf, Lieutenant J. Miner. Our obligation, as a training provider, is to ensure that a representative was present for all training sessions and that they received a conference credit. My Lieutenant was present for the entire conference, received the conference credit and as such fulfilled our contractual obligation. I would like to point out that Lt. Miner also took one of our spots and as such we did not have to pay any additional Conference fees. As the head of my Office there are unforeseen circumstances that periodically arise which require my personal attention. Although I would have enjoyed the opportunity to have attended the TCOLE conference myself, I was unfortunately needed elsewhere to fulfill my obligations as Constable on behalf of the constituents within my Precinct. Due to the short notice we were unable to receive a refund for the cost of the tuition which was pre-paid. I would again like to thank you for the opporunity to clarify your concerns and hope that this explanation will provide you with some needed closure.

Auditor records show Barrientes Vela used her county travel credit card to book a hotel room in Corpus Christi three days before the conference started.

The itinerary was then forwarded to Miner, records show.

Barrientes Vela's official Facebook page shows on one of the days the conference was taking place, she and her husband attended an event on human trafficking at the San Antonio fire union hall.

The constable, who was dressed in civilian clothes, was pictured alongside other people, including a district court judge who presented at the event.

History repeats itself

A Defenders investigation in August showed that the same trio: Barrientes Vela, Castillo and Garcia, traveled to Austin in September 2017 but skipped the main training day they signed up for.

Despite not showing up for the eight-hour training session on open records, the trio stayed in a high-priced hotel downtown and charged the county for meals.

"It's not that it is individually of tremendous magnitude. It is the cumulative reality that this didn't happen just once. And it's the arrogance of just thinking you can do it," said Scott. "That's what's so disturbing here. Do it once, fall on your sword, plead ignorance. 'This was a mistake, you know, I wasn't thinking straight.' And then go and sin no more. This just doesn't seem to be a person that has an attitude of going and sinning no more."

FIRST INSTANCE: Barrientes Vela, top Pct. 2 officials charged county for training, then skipped it

Futures in doubt

County commissioners are scheduled to name Barrientes Vela's replacement from a list of nearly 30 applicants Wednesday.

The futures of Castillo and Garcia within the agency remain cloudy as well.

Asked by the Defenders last week about their involvement in the skipped training incidents and whether they would remain with agency after Barrientes Vela is officially removed, Wolff said, “It’s possible that some may resign. It’s possible that some may prefer to work somewhere else in county government. It’s possible that she (Barrientes Vela’s replacement) may prefer they work somewhere else in the county government.”

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.