SAN ANTONIO – The high profile public corruption case against ex-constable Michelle Barrientes Vela added another level of intrigue on Thursday, after the judge agreed to hear testimony about whether comments made by the district attorney’s former campaign consultant unduly influenced the proceedings.
At issue, alleged comments made this past weekend by Robert Vargas, a political consultant who helped first-term Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales win a Democratic primary three years ago.
Vargas, who hosts a weekly radio show, is accused of telling a potential witness in the upcoming Barrientes Vela trial that Judge Velia Meza “better do the right thing in this case or I’ll find a Democratic opponent to primary her,” according to a motion for evidentiary hearing filed in court Thursday.
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, was made aware of the alleged comments and felt they were serious enough to enter them into the official court record during a hastily planned hearing on Wednesday.
Barrientes Vela previously elected to go before Meza for punishment, if the former constable is convicted at trial, meaning Meza could potentially decide whether to send the former elected official to prison.
“It’s going to stay with me. It’s going to stay with me. I’m going to hear it,” said Judge Meza during a hearing Thursday morning, after an attorney representing Barrientes Vela suggested that the evidentiary hearing could be moved to another courtroom.
The hearing, scheduled for July 14, could potentially result in Gonzales’ office being removed from the case.
If that happened, the trial would likely be pushed to 2022 and would be prosecuted by the Texas Attorney General’s Office, according to a source familiar with the criminal case against Barrientes Vela.
A Gonzales spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The spokeswoman previously said Vargas has never been an employee of the district attorney’s office and has not worked for Gonzales’ campaign in over three years.
Dawn McCraw, the lead prosecutor in the case, said Gonzales would willingly testify during the evidentiary hearing and would not need to be subpoenaed to do so.
Vargas, who was repeatedly paid thousands of dollars by Gonzales for campaign work in 2017 and 2018, according to county election finance forms, 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 or what was included in Thursday’s motion for a hearing.
Nico LaHood, the former district attorney beaten by Gonzales in the 2018 primary, indicated that Vargas’ comments were made offline at the taping of his radio show and were not necessarily part of the livestream.
“There seem to be some objective, credible witnesses that heard it and they are going to have to be prepared to testify,” said LaHood.
An attorney claiming to represent Vargas attended Thursday’s hearing.
Vargas, in a written statement released Wednesday, told the KSAT 12 Defenders, “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.”
“We don’t have a process that’s predicated on trying to intimidate judges. We don’t intimidate jurors and we don’t want to intimidate judges,” said LaHood, who described Vargas’ comments as a “veiled political threat” and not criminal in nature.
Barrientes Vela had several rows of supporters in attendance for Thursday’s hearing, which also included an increased presence of Bexar County Sheriff’s deputies.
Barrientes Vela was allowed to sit in a witness room prior to the hearing, but repeatedly walked into the hallway.
She did not respond to multiple questions about developments in her criminal case as she walked out of court.
Barrientes Vela and Garcia were indicted in January 2020, accused of committing crimes during her tumultuous tenure as Bexar County Precinct 2 constable ranging from aggravated perjury to official oppression.
Prosecutors in late May quietly dismissed the aggravated perjury charge, the most serious charge Barrientes Vela was facing.
She remains charged with two felony counts of tampering with evidence and three misdemeanor counts of official oppression.
A copy of the May 27 dismissal indicates that the case will instead be used during the punishment phase of her trial, if Barrientes Vela is convicted.
Her criminal trial is still tentatively scheduled to begin in early October.
Garcia, whose next schedule court appearance is Aug. 2, still faces the aggravated perjury charge and three counts of official oppression, court records show.