AUSTIN, Texas – Bexar County Precinct 2 Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela and other top officials from her agency charged the county for expensive hotel rooms, meals and a state open records training course but skipped the training itself, public records obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders confirm.
Records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and the Bexar County Auditor's Office raise serious questions about the two-day, taxpayer funded training trip to Austin in late September 2017.
While Barrientes Vela, Chief Deputy Anthony Castillo and Capt. Marc Garcia attended the initial four-hour training session at the Crowne Plaza Hotel - Austin on Sept. 27, 2017, TCOLE attendance rosters show the trio did not show up on Sept. 28, 2017, when a bulk of the training took place at the hotel during an eight-hour session.
At the time of the training, Castillo held the rank of captain while Garcia held the rank of sergeant. Both deputies have since been promoted.
TCOLE personal status reports for all three, which contain a list of their completed training courses, show they were only given credit for four of the 12 hours for the Texas Public Information Act course in question.
"I am very comfortable in the court of public opinion. In the court of public opinion, this pretty much smells," said George Scott, a public policy researcher and former Houston-area school board member.
"When you're dealing with public information act, you are dealing with a matter of law and there can be changes to the law, nuances to the law," said Scott, describing the open records training course.
Records from the Bexar County Auditor's Office show the county paid $250 per person for Barrientes Vela, Castillo and Garcia to attend the two days of sessions.
Pricey hotel rooms off site
An official with Bannon & Associates, the licensed TCOLE provider that hosted the seminar, said a block of rooms at the Crowne Plaza were available to attendees at a discounted price.
County auditor records, however, show that Barrientes Vela, Castillo and Garcia opted to stay at the Embassy Suites Austin - Downtown, overlooking Lady Bird Lake, for $249.47 per room per night.
Copies of the reservations show that Barrientes Vela stayed in a suite with two queen-sized beds, while Castillo and Garcia stayed together in a suite with two queen-sized beds.
Sources familiar with the training session said that rooms at the Embassy Suites were nearly triple the price of those offered at the Crowne Plaza.
Additionally, expense records show the trio charged the county for lunch the second day of the trip, even though they did not show up for training.
"Bexar County taxpayers beware. Local officials are misspending your money once again. And I have a real cause for concern here because I think there's a fiscal impact on homeowners and businesses," said James Quintero, director of the Think Local Liberty Project at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The foundation, located just blocks from the Texas State Capitol, is a free market research institute that aims to bring down the size and cost of government.
Quintero said county officials need to step in and determine if the trip was a one-off or repeated bad behavior from the constable and two of her top deputies.
"This would have been a valuable time to at least learn what was on the horizon," said Quintero, referring to the timing of the TPIA session, which was held months after the close of the 85th legislative session.
"Public information act was used to bust local officials."
"I have to say there's a special irony in the fact that the public information act was used to bust local officials who were supposed to be attending a Texas Public Information Act seminar," said Quintero.
In March, Barrientes Vela announced a new public information policy that forces individuals to request information at her office or by emailing her directly, even though state law requires only that requests be in writing.
Earlier this month, a member of the Defenders was forced to go to Barrientes Vela's office in person, even though the records in question consisted of a single email.
Precinct 2 officials were unable to find the records and they were later emailed to the Defenders.
In recent months, Barrientes Vela has stopped responding to open records requests from the Defenders' Dillon Collier altogether, a violation of state law.
One of the requests is for purported GPS vehicle logs that Barrientes Vela claims exonerates two of her deputies from wrongdoing, amid accusations that they delayed booking a fellow deputy until the media arrived to film it.
The Defenders have filed multiple complaints with the Texas Attorney General's Office regarding the constable's restrictive records policy.
Barrientes Vela did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.
She also failed to provide any documentation refuting the records provided by the county auditor.
The county auditor and Judge Nelson Wolff both declined to be interviewed for this story.