WATCH: Judge campaigns for daughter in Texas senate race; appears to violate state judicial code of conduct

Judge Ciro Rodriguez apologizes after being confronted about undercover footage

Undercover videos obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders show Bexar County Justice of the Peace Ciro Rodriguez campaigning for his daughter, a candidate for Texas Senate District 19, despite state laws forbidding judges from campaigning on behalf of another person.

SAN ANTONIO – Undercover videos obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders show Bexar County Justice of the Peace Ciro Rodriguez campaigning for his daughter, a candidate for Texas Senate District 19, despite state laws forbidding judges from campaigning on behalf of another person.

Footage recorded during a Tejano Democrats event in late September shows Rodriguez introducing his daughter, Xochil Pena Rodriguez.

Judge Ciro Rodriguez introduces his daughter, Xochil Pena Rodriguez, during a Tejano Democrats event. (KSAT)

“A district that we can win, a district that we shouldn’t have lost, but we’re going to take it,” said Rodriguez through applause from the crowd.

“Today we were in Maverick County, yesterday we were in Uvalde...and will be running throughout the 17 counties,” said Rodriguez, referring to the counties that make up the sprawling senatorial district that stretches from south San Antonio to west Texas.

The following month, during a National Night Out event, Rodriguez was captured on camera again introducing his daughter and handing out her campaign literature.

Judge Ciro Rodriguez hands out campaign literature for his daughter's run for the Texas Senate in early October. (KSAT)

“It gives the appearance of supporting her, and that’s something that judges are supposed to avoid under what is known as the appearance of impropriety standard. So that’s problematic,” said Michael Ariens, professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law.

“There’s always been a fear that judges, because they have a slightly different role in our system than legislators, may fall into the trap of viewing themselves as an alternate type of legislator,” said Ariens, who added that if he was Pena Rodriguez’s campaign manager, he would suggest that her father play a more low-key or behind-the-scenes role.

St. Mary's University School of Law Professor Michael Ariens. (KSAT)

Texas Code of Judicial Conduct

Sources told the Defenders the conduct of Rodriguez, who is Bexar County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 1, Place 2, has been reported to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

A spokeswoman for the commission told the Defenders via email in October that confidentiality constraints prevented her from confirming or denying whether a complaint has been filed against the former U.S. Congressman.

However, public records show other judges in Texas accused of similar wrongdoing have received discipline from the commission, ranging from public reprimands to being ordered to go through additional education.

The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, which consists of eight canons, sets “basic standards which should govern the conduct of all judges and to provide guidance to assist judges in establishing and maintaining high standards of judicial and personal conduct.”

Canon 2B. states that “a judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others," while Canon 5(2) states that a judge “shall not authorize the public use of his or her name endorsing another candidate for any public office, except that either may indicate support for a political party.”

Uresti’s shadow

Carlos Uresti leaves court during his federal corruption trial. (KSAT)

Carlos Uresti resigned his District 19 senate seat well over a year ago, but the convicted felon’s shadow still hangs over it.

Uresti, who is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for his role in a fraudulent fracking sand company, was replaced by Pete Flores, who defeated Pete Gallego in a runoff election in September 2018.

Senator Pete Flores (left), Rep. Roland Gutierrez (right). (KSAT)

Flores is seeking reelection in 2020, but will have to beat out Pena Rodriguez and State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, who finished third behind Flores and Gallego in the special general election for Uresti’s seat last year.

Through a spokesman, Flores declined to comment for this story.

A spokesman for Gutierrez released the following statement:

Every judge and every attorney knows these rules. Senate district 19 has seen enough scandal and flaunting of the law, we don’t need another Senator who won’t follow the law.

The judge apologizes

In late October, the Defenders talked to a spokeswoman for Pena Rodriguez’s campaign who said she would pass along our questions to the candidate.

For more than six weeks, the Defenders did not hear back.

Thursday, hours after the story was published, Pena Rodrguez finally released a written statement:

It’s unfortunate that my opponent or his supporters feel like attacking my father is the only way they can win.

I’m grateful and blessed to have two very supportive and proud parents. My dad has always been supportive of me, and my career, and he’s excited that I am following in his footsteps and running for office — really the whole family is excited. I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn of a proud parent talking about their only child who is now running to represent the district she was born and raised in.

It is true that I am inspired by the example my father set as a public servant of listening to his constituents and working hard to solve problems and make things better. And while I think most people understand that family wants to be supportive, ultimately, I’m the candidate in this race, and I’m not taking anything for granted.

I’ve learned from traveling across the district that people are tired of politicians who talk a lot but get nothing done. The truth is that Texas isn’t where it needs to be right now, whether it is access to better education or more affordable health care, or even decent roads. That’s why I am focused not in attacks from my opponent, but on listening to what voters across the district need and want in their next representative.

Rodriguez did not respond to a request for an on camera interview sent via email.

Late last month, the Defenders caught up to Rodriguez as he left court.

Judge Ciro Rodriguez refuses to answer questions from the KSAT 12 Defenders November 20, 2019.

Below is a transcript of the conversation:

Collier: Judge? Dillon with KSAT 12. Been trying to reach you regarding campaigning for your daughter.

Judge Rodriguez: I haven’t gotten any reports on that.

Collier: I’ve been emailing you. Can we show you a video of you at the Tejano Democrats dinner?

Judge Rodriguez: Not interested.

Collier: Do you think you violated the State Code of Judicial Conduct?

Rodriguez drove off without answering the question.

Three hours later, however, Rodriguez called KSAT 12 and left a voicemail for the Defenders.

Here is a transcript of that message:

Dillon, this is Ciro Rodriguez, Judge Rodriguez, and let me apologize, you know. You know, I’m aware of the judicial conduct. I thought I had some leeway because it was my daughter. I know I’m not supposed to pass out any literature, if that’s the case. I apologize to my constituency for doing that. It’s a tough situation because you want to do everything you can for your daughter in this case, but that’s not going to be happening anymore. So this is Judge Rodriguez (phone number redacted.)

Undercover videos obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders show Bexar County Justice of the Peace Ciro Rodriguez campaigning for his daughter, a candidate for Texas Senate District 19, despite state laws forbidding judges from campaigning on behalf of another person.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined the KSAT 12 Defenders in 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat. 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-nominated 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.