SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County budget employees who last year questioned why a justice of the peace continued to collect full-time pay were instructed to leave the increase in place, emails obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders show.
The March 2019 email chain included members of the county’s budget and human resources department and focused on the annual compensation of Precinct 1, Place 2 Justice of the Peace Ciro Rodriguez, who nine months earlier had been given a “short-term salary adjustment” by county commissioners after the precinct’s primary judge recovered from a life-threatening bacterial infection.
Records, however, show Rodriguez’s nearly $30,000 pay increase, from $88,040 to more than $117,000, remained in place long after the other judge, Robert Tejeda, returned to work.
Rodriguez’s annual salary has now increased to $125,792 a year, records show, even though the judge hears less than a quarter of cases in his precinct.
“I recall the funding was only approved while Judge Tejada was out on leave,” wrote a budget staffer on March 11, 2019, referring to Tejeda.
Bexar County’s budget director, Seth McCabe, responded via email the same day that the increase was to stay in place while officials completed a J.P.-constable workload analysis or until a task force led by Rodriguez’s younger brother, Commissioner Chico Rodriguez, put together recommendations on compensation for J.P. and constable offices moving forward.
A second budget staffer wrote in the email chain that she was unfamiliar with what study was being referenced.
Commissioner Rodriguez, who, according to county records, voted in favor of his brother’s “short-term salary adjustment" in June 2018, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Defenders about his role on the task force.
When asked if having Commissioner Rodriguez head up a task force involved in determining the compensation of Rodriguez’s older brother was a conflict of interest, Judge Nelson Wolff said via email the task force was the idea of the late-Commissioner Paul Elizondo and that Commissioner Rodriguez was nominated for the role because of his previous law enforcement experience.
“The Court publicly stated that the JP/Constable representative should be from precincts other than Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace and Constable to give as much of a voice to review and defining the workload of each office,” Wolff said in a written response to questions from the Defenders last month.
Wolff added that the need for a task force became moot after the passing of a state law last summer that increased the jurisdiction of J.P. courts to hear civil cases up to $20,000.
County officials declined to make McCabe available for an interview for this story.
Officials announced Wednesday that McCabe resigned his position, effective May 14.
Officials have not released any details about the timing of McCabe’s departure, only that he is leaving to pursue a new opportunity.
A spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General earlier this year confirmed the agency is investigating the circumstances of the pay increase, but declined to release details since it’s an ongoing case.
The AG’s office has not provided an update on the status of the investigation.
County officials continue to defend Judge Rodriguez’s pay
County officials, most notably Wolff, continue to publicly back Judge Rodriguez’s full-time compensation even as the county faces a potential hit to its general fund budget of up to $100 million because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And while Wolff claims the passage of Senate Bill 2342 will potentially impact the workload of J.P. courts, including Rodriguez’s, members of both the Texas Legislature and the judiciary have pointed out the law does not go into effect until September of this year.
Wolff did not respond to a follow up request for comment about the deferred implementation of the law.
He previously said via email the decision to maintain the number of full-time Justices of the Peace was made during the 2019-20 fiscal year budgeting process and addressed during the August 20, 2019 Commissioners Court meeting.
During that same meeting, McCabe made the following comment to commissioners while providing a budget overview:
“We have seen a significant decline in the number of incoming cases to the justice of the peace courts,” said McCabe, referring to juvenile truancy cases that were now being handled by city courts.
And while McCabe referenced SB 2342 and its potential impact on J.P. courts, he also showed commissioners a slide that indicated J.P. workload in Judge Rodriguez’s precinct had decreased during the 2018-19 fiscal year.
The Defenders reviewed archive footage of the meeting several times and found no record of Judge Rodriguez or his salary being mentioned.
County budget records show the number of justice of the peace positions for Precinct 1 was increased from 1.5 to 2 for the 2018-19 fiscal year.
As recently as late February, however, Judge Rodriguez was still listed as a part-time justice of the peace on county judicial management reports.
Wolff said via email the report was not properly updated and that the adopted budget is the official document for authorized positions in the county.
Judge Wolff told us to look at the statistics again, so we did
A Defenders investigation last month revealed that from the start of October 2019 to the end of February, Judge Rodriguez heard less than 23% of cases assigned to his precinct.
Judge Rodriguez said the reports obtained by the Defenders were not reflective of the amount of work he was doing and that he had requested a forensic audit be done on case dispositions in Precinct 1.
A county spokeswoman last month confirmed the requested audit is pending.
Judge Rodriguez did not respond to repeated emails requesting comment for this story.
Wolff, in a written response to questions from the Defenders last month, said caseload should be looked at in total, not by judge, pointing out that more than 10,000 cases were heard in Tejeda’s court while he was on sick leave from June through September 2018.
The Defenders then asked for statistics from Precinct 1 for the total number of cases assigned to Judge Tejeda but heard by Rodriguez and for the total number of cases assigned to Judge Rodriguez but heard by Tejeda from the start of October 2019 to the end of February.
Those records of crossover cases showed an additional 144 cases in Judge Rodriguez’s favor, which increased his workload about one-half of one percent but kept it under a quarter of all cases.
Eleven county employees document Judge Rodriguez tirades at work
Late last month, Judge Rodriguez was accused of taking part in multiple tirades inside the offices of Precinct 1, located in the 3500 block of Pleasanton Road.
The incidents took place in the days after the Defenders reached him for comment about his caseload statistics and full-time pay, according to records obtained by the Defenders.
The sworn statements of 11 court employees who witnessed one or more of the incidents were provided to the Defenders following an open records request last month.
Two of the 11 employees spoke with the Defenders on the condition that we disguise their voices and not show their faces.
“He was clearly upset. I believe it was very unprofessional,” said one employee, who remembered members of the public watching as Judge Rodriguez raised his voice to staff members.
“Judge Rodriguez let us know not to believe any rumors we hear in the media, because he (Judge R) is a full time judge at our court until he is told he is not,” one employee wrote in their statement detailing a late March incident.
Employees also detailed a separate incident in which Judge Rodriguez was accused of yelling at the court manager after not being properly informed about a case that was ready to be heard.
“It made me uncomfortable. I tried to keep an eye on the situation just in case it may get out of hand,” wrote another employee, who added that Judge Rodriguez and the court manager later apologized to staff members.
“He did this while our office was open for business and in front of all the court clerks, all while they looked on in shock,” an employee told the Defenders.
Another employee wrote that Judge Rodriguez was raising his voice over the court manager “in a very aggressive way.”
“At one point Judge Rodriguez stepped towards her while he was still raising his voice,” the employee wrote.
Another employee wrote that they witnessed Judge Rodriguez get “pretty aggressive” towards the court manager while accusing her of lying, noting at one point that the judge was “angrily shouting."
Judge Rodriguez did not respond to repeated requests from the Defenders to address his workplace behavior.