‘Threat’ against judge from DA’s former consultant further complicates case against Barrientes Vela

Judge Velia Meza to address possible recusal motions during hearing Thursday morning

Robert Vargas (left) served as a political consultant for Joe Gonzales (right) until April 2018, prior to Gonzales' election as district attorney. (Joshua Saunders, KSAT)

SAN ANTONIO – The state district judge assigned to the upcoming public corruption trial of ex-constable Michelle Barrientes Vela said she views alleged comments made over the weekend by the district attorney’s former campaign consultant as a political threat against her.

Judge Velia Meza, during a hastily planned hearing Wednesday afternoon, said she was made aware of comments over the weekend made by Joe Gonzales’ former consultant, Robert Vargas.

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“Better do the right thing in this case or I’ll find a Democratic opponent to primary her,” said Meza, desribing the nature of Vargas’ comments, while pointing out that it may not have been his exact quote.

WATCH: ‘Downfall:’ The story of ex-Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela, a KSAT 12 Defenders special

Meza said the comments made their way to at least one witness in the case, a Bexar County Constable’s Office Precinct 2 employee, and were eventually relayed to her campaign staff.

Meza, who was assigned the cases against Barrientes Vela and former Precinct 2 captain Marc D. Garcia after Judge Ron Rangel recused himself in April, said she has no issues being impartial during the trial but that she is now open to hearing motions from either the defense or prosecution to have her recused from it.

Barrientes Vela, who was able to get the most serious felony charge against her dismissed earlier this year, has chosen to be punished by Meza if convicted on any of the remaining counts.

Thursday’s hybrid hearing, in which some people appeared in court in person and others appeared via Zoom, lasted around 20 minutes.

Barrientes Vela, who still faces five public corruption charges, appeared at the hearing in person.

As did Vargas, who last worked for Gonzales’ campaign in April 2018, around seven months before he was elected district attorney.

Vargas released the following statement Wednesday afternoon, following the hearing:

“The statements described by Judge Meza are clearly hearsay, and in the Judge’s own words, only ‘tangential’ in nature. In my opinion, the accusations are politically motivated. I made no statements of any kind.”

Vargas hosts a weekly radio show called “Platica Politica.” A Facebook live recording of the show confirmed that Vargas had a Precinct 2 deputy chief on as a guest Saturday.

The nearly hour-long livestream, however, did not appear to include any comments from Vargas similar to what Meza described in court Wednesday.

Meza pointed out during the hearing that she is up for re-election during the next cycle.

Gonzales’ office attempted to distance itself from Vargas Wednesday.

A DA spokeswoman released the following statement:

“Robert Vargas has not worked with the campaign of DA Joe Gonzales since shortly after the March 2018 Democratic primary election. Robert Vargas has never been employed by the Bexar County District Attorney’s office nor had any involvement with the Gonzales4DA campaign since sometime after March 2018.”

From left: Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, and Robert Vargas. (KSAT)

Gonzales campaign records show repeated payments made to Vargas for work done during the primary campaign.

The DA and Vargas are also pictured next to one another in multiple photos on social media.

Dawn McCraw, the lead prosecutor in the case, said during the hearing she did not know who Vargas was until being briefed about the alleged comments.

Jason Goss, one of the attorneys representing Barrientes Vela, said during the hearing his office may file to have Gonzales recused from the case.

“Robert Vargas is well associated with the district attorney,” Goss said during the hearing. He added that Barrientes Vela deserves to be prosecuted by a DA not connected to the person “who threatened a sitting judge.”

Barrientes Vela and Garcia were indicted in January 2020, months after she was removed from office.

About the Author

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

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