Judge again caught campaigning for daughter in Texas Senate race as questions emerge about her donations
State complaint accuses Xochil Peña Rodriguez of not reporting names and true addresses of her donors
SAN ANTONIO – Weeks after Bexar County Justice of the Peace Ciro Rodriguez apologized for campaigning for his daughter — a Democratic candidate for Texas Senate District 19 — and promised not to do it again, pictures again showed Rodriguez campaigning for his daughter.
The photos, obtained by the Defenders, show Rodriguez in late December putting up campaign signs for Xochil Peña Rodriguez in Eagle Pass.
Then on Jan. 13, a post on Uvalde County Commissioner Ronald “Ronnie” Garza’s Facebook page stated that he and Rodriguez were “meeting to coordinate efforts for State Senate candidate Xochil Rodriguez.”
The post included a picture of Rodriguez shaking the hand of Garza, who was wearing a Xochil Peña Rodriguez campaign T-shirt.
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.”
Specifically, 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.”
The most recent incidents took place weeks after a Defenders investigation exposed a pattern of Rodriguez openly campaigning for his daughter at events last fall. Early voting for the primary begins Feb. 18 and Election Day is March 3.
Peña Rodriguez, a first-time candidate, is slated to run in the Democratic primary against Freddy Ramirez, also taking part in his first campaign for public office, and Roland Gutierrez, a longtime member of the Texas House of Representatives.
The winner faces incumbent Senator Pete Flores in the November election.
Senate District 19 is a sprawling district stretching from south San Antonio along the United States-Mexico border all the way up to Alpine, taking up parts of 17 counties.
After declining to speak to the Defenders ahead of the first story, Rodriguez — who is Bexar County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 1, Place 2 and a former U.S. congressman — left a voicemail with the Defenders Nov. 20 apologizing to his constituency.
“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,” said Rodriguez on the recorded message.
Multiple sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Defenders the conduct of Rodriguez, had been reported to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct even before the December and January incidents took place.
Officials with the commission have declined to discuss whether Rodriguez is the subject of a complaint.
Neither Peña Rodriguez or her father agreed to an on camera interview for this story.
Uvalde County Commissioner Garza, reached by telephone Jan. 31, had the following exchange with the Defenders:
Collier: Hi. Commissioner Garza?
Collier: My name is Dillon Collier. I’m an investigative reporter from KSAT 12 television in San Antonio.
Garza: (long pause) Yes?
Collier: Hi. I’m calling regarding a Facebook post that you made on January 13th, showing you and Ciro Rodriguez, a local judge from our area.
Collier: Just wondering what you meant when you said you were coordinating efforts with him for his daughter Xochil?
Garza: Yeah. I’m his campaign coordinator in Uvalde County, Xochil’s.
Collier: You’re Xochil’s campaign coordinator.
Garza: Yes. You could say that.
Collier: Okay. Are you aware that he’s not allowed to campaign on behalf of any candidate, being a sitting judge?
Garza: No. I wasn’t aware of that.
Collier: Okay. Yeah, it’s the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct. There are rules against that type of behavior.
Garza: Oh wow.
Collier: What sort of coordinating efforts took place, if you don’t mind me asking?
Garza: Uh, you know what? I’ve got another call coming in. I’ll have to get back with you Mr. Collier.
Collier: Ahh, you’ve got that other call coming in. Yeah.
Garza: Thank you.
Donations called into question
Inconsistencies in Peña Rodriguez’s finance reporting have led to a state ethics complaint.
State campaign finance records show she accepted $125,000 in loans from her mother, Carolina, between late August and the day after Christmas.
Peña Rodriguez also repeatedly listed monthly in-kind contributions for a campaign office as also coming from her mother.
Neither the loan filings or the in-kind contribution reports included her mother’s address.
Multiple sources told the Defenders the campaign office in question is on land co-owned by Ciro and Carolina.
Bexar County Appraisal District records show Ciro and Carolina co-own four properties next to each other in southeast Bexar County.
Additionally, a text message sent last fall from Peña Rodriguez’s campaign manager, Diana Arevalo, encouraged recipients to attend a fundraising breakfast to benefit Peña Rodriguez’s campaign.
The address listed in the text message comes back to a property owned by Ciro and Carolina.
A sworn complaint filed with the Texas Ethics Commission last month accuses Peña Rodriguez of violating several sections of the Texas Election Code related to accepting and reporting these donations.
“He should not be campaigning for his daughter publicly. You certainly cannot give contributions, including in-kind contributions, from a judge to a candidate for public office. Those things seem to have happened. They seem to continue happening. They need to stop. Authorities need to be looking at this,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the non-partisan group Common Cause Texas.
Gutierrez is a former campaign staff member of Rodriguez from his days in Congress.
“The simplest thing would have been for Ciro to step down, then he could have campaigned with his daughter without any of these complications,” said Gutierrez.
A campaign finance report filed by Peña Rodriguez Feb. 3 did not list an in-kind contribution of office space.
Arevalo said the report was then amended online to reflect the contribution.
The corrected report still does not contain the address of Peña Rodriguez’s mother, state records show.
Opponents say Peña Rodriguez shares the blame
Peña Rodriguez’s two opponents in next month’s Democratic primary for SD-19 said she is complicit in the campaign missteps.
“For someone to continue operating this way and to allow these things to continue under their watch, to me is unacceptable and very disheartening,” said candidate Ramirez, a Bexar County assistant district attorney also running for public office for the first time.
“It’s not so much breaking these rules as much as it is her and her team allowing this to happen. If I’m in that position I would want to distance myself from any image of impropriety," Ramirez said.
Peña Rodriguez’s other opponent, state Representative Roland Gutierrez, agreed.
“All I want is for people to act right. All I want is to have a level playing field. And clearly since the inception of their campaign they have not followed the rules,” said Roland Gutierrez.
The candidate cancels
Peña Rodriguez, through her campaign manager, agreed to sit down with the Defenders for an on-camera interview.
She then canceled less than a day before it was scheduled to take place.
Peña Rodriguez eventually released the following written statement:
"It’s a serious sign of desperation and weakness that my opponent and his surrogates feel like attacking my father is the only way they can win.
As I’ve said before, 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 yes he’s excited that I am following in his footsteps and running for office.
While I don’t think anyone is surprised to hear that a proud parent has spoken about their only child who is now running to represent the district she was born and raised in, the bottom line is that IF mistakes were made by my campaign, I will fix them and ensure they don’t happen again. I think as a public servant or someone seeking to be elected to office you have to be willing to admit when you make a mistake and take action to fix it.
In regards to my father and whether or not given his current role he made his own mistakes by helping or saying positive things about me -- his daughter -- well first, he’s my father and you know he’s proud of me, but, second he’s said he’s responsible for his own actions."
Peña Rodriguez did not clarify which opponent she was referring to in the statement.
Ciro Rodriguez answered the phone earlier this month but quickly hung up before the reporter could finish identifying himself and thus did not provide a comment for this story.
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