The most unusual acts of Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela during her troubled tenure

Barrientes Vela investigated for possibly triggering resign-to-run law weeks before actually doing so

Michelle Barrientes Vela's 33-month tenure as constable had its fair share of curious moments. (Joshua Saunders, KSAT)

SAN ANTONIOEditor’s note: This story is part of an investigative series about the criminal case against ex-Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela. The series culminates with “Downfall,” an hourlong special report that airs on KSAT 12 on March 25 at 9 p.m.

It is not common for an elected official in Texas to trigger the state’s resign-to-run law, but to nearly do it twice within one month is by all indications an extremely rare feat.

In late August 2019, during a press conference in front of the Bexar County Courthouse, then-Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela forced county officials to examine whether she had triggered the state’s resign-to-run law.

That day Barrientes Vela said she had unfinished business in Precinct 2 and would be seeking a second term as constable, while also clearly declaring that she intended to campaign for the higher Bexar County Sheriff’s office in 2024.

That declaration for sheriff caused county officials to start looking into whether she had invoked the section of the Texas Constitution that requires an elected official to resign if he or she announces a run for another office with more than 13 months left in their current term.

Weeks later, before county officials had publicly announced the results of that investigation, Barrientes Vela made another declaration for sheriff, this time stating that she would instead seek the office in 2020.

That proclamation set in motion a fast-moving process that ended with her being replaced as constable two weeks later.

Barrientes Vela would go on to finish a distant third in the March 2020 primary for sheriff, which came just weeks after her indictment and just days after she had made her initial court appearance in the criminal case. She raised $1,600 in political contributions and loaned herself more than $60,000 during the campaign.

The resign-to-run chapter of Barrientes Vela’s tenure is one of several unusual acts carried out by the former constable during her 33 months in office.

SIGN UP FOR THE FREE DEFENDERS NEWSLETTER HERE

The patch

Within hours of winning the 2016 election for Bexar County Constable Precinct 2, Barrientes Vela claimed on Facebook that she was the first female constable in county history.

A patch for the agency she had designed after taking office included the phrase “Making History 2017 1st Female M.B.V.”

The issue, however, was that records from the county clerk’s Spanish Archives Division show that Mrs. S.M. “Indana” Meeks was Bexar County’s first female constable.

Meeks was appointed constable for Precinct 1 in July 1941, after the death of her husband, S.M. Meeks, archive records show.

Mrs. Meeks went on to serve as constable for Precinct 1 for much of the decade, records show.

County commissioners, days after the Defenders exposed the false claim to history, pulled a $2,147 expenditure request from Barrientes Vela to have her office reimbursed for the patches.

Claims of a conspiracy

As word leaked out in 2019 that Barrientes Vela was the focus of a criminal investigation, she began to declare that she was being targeted because she refused to be part of a “corrupt good ol’ boy system.”

Supporters of Barrientes Vela would make signs and wear T-shirts featuring pictures of other elected county officials, calling them corrupt and questioning their integrity.

In late August 2019, Barrientes Vela told the media during a press conference that Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales made threats toward her and bullied her staff, before conceding minutes later that she had no recent communication with him.

“I’m still waiting for Joe Gonzales to come out. I don’t see him,” said Barrientes Vela, looking back at the courthouse.

Gonzales’ offices were actually adjacent to the courthouse, in the Bexar County Justice Center.

Weeks later, as the Texas Rangers and FBI raided Barrientes Vela’s Precinct 2 offices, she again claimed she was the target of a conspiracy to bring her down, telling a KSAT reporter she was under attack by other county elected officials.

She went on to say that she and her staff were being accused of doing illegal things because she would not stand with “the good ‘ol boy system.”

Months later, after being released from custody following her indictment on six criminal counts, Barrientes Vela altered her message slightly and said she was the rare elected county official who had not been “bought by special interest people.”

To date, Barrientes Vela has not provided any tangible proof that other elected officials conspired to take her down.

Arresting her political opponent

When Precinct 2 Deputy Constable Leonicio Moreno was charged with aggravated perjury in late April 2019, the high-profile arrest came three months after he had filed paperwork to run for Precinct 2 Constable.

Barrientes Vela, and the Precinct 2 captain who wrote the arrest affidavit, have both publicly denied that Moreno’s arrest was political payback and instead contend Moreno was arrested for making false statements in two Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints against the then-constable.

But DA Gonzales, not long after prosecutors in his office rejected the criminal charge against Moreno, claimed that the timing of the incident was bad, and pointed out that Moreno was also a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit against Barrientes Vela.

That case, filed in late 2018 over a 2017 incident in a Galveston hot tub during a Precinct 2 work trip, is now one of three pending civil cases filed by Moreno against his former boss.

The Texas Ranger who wrote the search warrant used to raid Barrientes Vela’s offices in September 2019 concluded that Moreno’s decision to run for constable directly led to his arrest.

While being interviewed by the Rangers, then-Captain Marc D. Garcia said he suggested to Barrientes Vela that the perjury case against Moreno should be forwarded to the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office for review. Barrientes Vela responded that something needed to happen now and instructed Garcia to proceed with trying to get an arrest warrant, records show.

READ MORE ON THE DOWNFALL PAGE:

Downfall: The story of ex-Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela airs March 25 at 9 pm on KSAT

A timeline of Michelle Barrientes Vela’s controversial time in office

Barrientes Vela, former captain plan aggressive defense at abuse of office trial

10 controversies surrounding embattled Precinct 2 Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela


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. He provides restaurant health reports for KSAT's "Behind the Kitchen Door." 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 award-winning 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.