SAN ANTONIO – UPDATE: Monday evening, more than a day after this story was posted, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff released a written statement. You can read the statement in its entirety below.
A months-long investigation by the KSAT 12 Defenders found a Bexar County justice of the peace collected a full-time paycheck despite hearing less than a quarter of the cases in his precinct.
Precinct 1, Place 2 Judge Ciro Rodriguez, a former U.S. congressman and the older brother of Precinct 1 Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez, was given a “short-term salary adjustment” in June 2018 after the court’s primary judge, Precinct 1, Place 1 Judge Robert Tejeda, contracted a life-threatening bacterial infection and needed time to recover.
The increase boosted Ciro Rodriguez’s salary from $88,040 a year to more than $117,000 a year, according to figures provided by the Bexar County Auditor’s office.
Nearly two years later, with Tejeda back on the job, the short-term increase remains in place.
Additionally, Ciro Rodriguez has been given two yearly salary increases during that time and now takes home $125,792 a year, records show.
A spokeswoman confirmed the Texas Attorney General’s Office is investigating the circumstances of the pay increase, but declined to release details since it’s an ongoing case.
What the records show
Bexar County Precinct 1 annually hears more cases, ranging from low-level misdemeanors to evictions, than the county’s three other precincts.
As a result, Precinct 1, which makes up south Bexar County and parts of west Bexar County, is the only county justice of the peace to have two judges assigned to it.
From the start of October 2019 to the end of February, Tejeda disposed of 20,494 cases, while Ciro Rodriguez disposed of 6,074 cases, according to records released by Tejeda’s staff.
Tejeda, an administrative judge, is responsible for reporting case figures to the county and the state Office of Court Administration.
Tejeda heard more than 77% of the precinct’s cases during the five-month period, while Ciro Rodriguez heard less than 23%, according to figures from Tejeda’s staff.
Tejeda’s staff also indicated that according to their records, Ciro Rodriguez worked between six and eight hours per week during those five months.
The breakdown of each judge’s caseload is remarkable when you consider that Tejeda is still physically impacted by the effects of the infection.
Video viewed by the Defenders showed Tejeda in recent months being brought to court in a medical-type van and unloaded while in a wheelchair.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said late last year that when he last saw Tejeda he could not move his hands or arms but was alert mentally.
Wolff did not respond to a follow up request for comment on Ciro Rodriguez’s salary adjustment still being in place.
Monday night, more than a day after the story was posted and after failing to respond to repeated requests for comment dating back to Feb. 18, Wolff released the following statement:
Justice of the Peace Ciro Rodriguez, a duly elected official, was raised to full-time status in June 2018, following Judge Tejeda's absence due to illness as allowed by state law. In May 2019, Senate Bill (SB) 2342, was passed, which effectively increased the jurisdiction of the Justice of the Peace courts in civil matters from $10,000 to $20,000. During the budget preparation process that took place in late Spring and through the summer, it was determined that the number of cases heard between all JP offices was projected to increase.
The decision to maintain the number of full-time Justices of the Peace was made during the FY 2019-20 budgeting process and addressed during the Aug. 20, 2019 Commissioners Court meeting.
Because Judge Ciro Rodriguez was in a full-time position due to the June 2018 action, no further action was needed to keep him at his current position.
The Precinct 1 JP Office continues to maintain the highest number of cases heard between all Bexar County precincts, their workload is approximately 65 percent higher, than the next highest precinct.
Wolff did not respond to follow up questions on the issue, including why Ciro Rodriguez is still listed as a part-time judge in quarterly Bexar County Judicial Management Reports that track cases heard in the justice of the peace courts.
Reached via telephone late last month, Ciro Rodriguez said the reports are not reflective of the amount of work that is being done.
He then released a written statement in which he criticized Tejeda:
I do not understand why Judge Tejeda would knowingly downplay my work in Precinct One while embellishing his own performance as a Judge. The information you were provided by Judge Tejeda is simply not true and does not reflect the actual work done by me as a part-time judge doing full-time work to allow Judge Tejeda to recover from his incapacitating illness.
In this regard and in accordance with my oath as a Judge to seek the actual truth, I am requesting a forensic audit of Judge of the Peace Court records, to reflect what judge actually heard and disposed of cases not just what judge was assigned the case.
I cannot comment any further other than to tell you that the truth will be known after the audit. In order to protect your journalistic integrity, you should consider refraining from running any stories on this matter or making any innuendos until this audit is completed and you have all the facts.
Pressed by the Defenders for more information about this requested audit, Ciro Rodriguez said he could not release information about the agency he asked to look into it.
Hours before the story was scheduled to air, Ciro Rodriguez shared a letter he claims was sent to county leaders, including Bexar County Manager David Smith and County Auditor Leo Caldera, on March 26 asking for a forensic audit.
A county spokeswoman said as recently as last week she had not heard of any such request.
Sunday evening the spokeswoman said had now been made aware of the request but was not sure of the status of it.
Officials with the county auditor’s office did not respond to repeated calls for comment this week.
Ciro Rodriguez’s caseload statistics, however, are similar when pulling figures directly from the Office of Court Administration, a state agency that provides resources and information for the efficient administration of the Judicial Branch of Texas.
According to the OCA, from October 2019 to the end of February, Tejeda heard 20,503 cases while Ciro Rodriguez heard 6,085 cases.
Those figures again put Ciro Rodriguez’s caseload at less than 23% of total causes for Precinct 1.
When asked about the slight discrepancy between the figures released by Tejeda’s staff and what OCA has on file, Tejeda said via email the original figures were compiled using internal day-to-day clerk’s tallies but that the OCA’s statistics were official and accurate.
A Bexar County Justice of the Peace quarterly report, which covers October 2019 through December 2019, and lists Ciro Rodriguez as a part-time judge, shows that he had disposed case figures slightly behind Precinct 3 J.P Jeff Wentworth and Precinct 2 J.P. Roberto Vazquez, but well behind Tejeda and Precinct 4 J.P. Rogelio Lopez.
The courtroom shared by Tejeda and Ciro Rodriguez is temporarily closed, with the exception of essential hearings, while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Commissioner Rodriguez’s role
Bexar County Commissioners Court records show Ciro Rodriguez’s short-term salary adjustment was approved on June 5, 2018, as part of a consent agenda.
As part of the same item, Judge Jack Price was temporarily appointed to fill Tejeda’s seat while he recovered from his illness.
The records list Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez as seconding the motion, along with the late-Commissioner Paul Elizondo, to approve the salary increase for Chico Rodriguez’s brother and also as voting in favor of it.
Reached by the Defenders via email, Chico Rodriguez said it was an oversight on his part to not verbally abstain from the vote but disputed county records that show he seconded the motion.
Video of the meeting shows Elizondo clearly seconding the motion, but Rodriguez does not appear to say “second” out loud.
Rodriguez also disputed records that show he voted in favor of the salary increase for his brother.
Typically, an elected official must verbally say they are not going to vote on an item in order to not be counted as an “aye” for consent agenda items.
Rodriguez did not verbally abstain from the vote, according to archive footage of the meeting, and was counted as an “aye” vote along with Elizondo, Wolff and Commissioner Tommy Calvert.
Ciro Rodriguez caught campaigning for his daughter
Videos and photos obtained by the Defenders late last year and earlier this year showed Ciro Rodriguez campaigning for his daughter Xochil Pena-Rodriguez, a candidate for Texas Senate District 19.
The campaigning, which included Ciro Rodriguez handing out literature for his daughter and repeatedly introducing her at public events, appeared to violate the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, which forbids judges from campaigning on behalf of another person.
After Ciro Rodriguez apologized and said he would no longer campaign, the Defenders obtained photos of him weeks later putting up campaign signs in Eagle Pass and meeting with a Uvalde County commissioner on his daughter’s behalf.
Pena-Rodriguez, a first-time political candidate, is currently in a runoff with Texas Representative Roland Gutierrez.
The runoff election has been moved from late May to July 14 because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The winner faces incumbent Sen. Pete Flores in the November election.
A Texas Ethics Complaint filed in January against Pena-Rodriguez accused her of improperly reporting loans and in-kind contributions to her campaign.
The complaint was originally rejected, but was resubmitted and accepted by the TEC in late February, according to records reviewed by the Defenders.
Pena-Rodriguez previously said if mistakes were made by her campaign she would fix them and they would not happen again.