Honorable discharge: Officer accused of groping handcuffed woman bounced between departments despite trail of misconduct

TCOLE does not have authority to investigate conduct or alleged criminal actions

SAN PATRICIO COUNTY, Texas – Records obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders shed new light on how a South Texas police officer bounced around departments despite a trail of misconduct.

In one instance, Taft police officer Roberto Moreno was accused of groping a San Antonio-area woman during an August 2019 drug arrest. That same day, he was notified of an impending suspension for an unrelated parking dispute with a resident, records show.

Those instances were far from Moreno’s first disciplinary issues.

The 31-year-old officer landed in Taft, a small Coastal Bend town north of Corpus Christi, after bouncing between law enforcement agencies following policy violations. The alleged misconduct accelerated — occurring more frequently in each instance — until Moreno was eventually charged with a felony for the alleged groping incident.

But as Moreno’s issues played out first as a cadet with the Corpus Christi Police Department, then as an officer in Beeville and Taft, the state agency that licenses peace officers did not have the authority to investigate his conduct.

For now, Moreno is free on bond awaiting trial for the improper sexual activity charge. He is also a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit stemming from the same incident.

Moreno was no stranger to on-duty controversy, sexual and otherwise, prior to the 2019 groping allegation, according to his personnel file from multiple agencies obtained by KSAT 12.

Kicked out of the academy

Moreno’s Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) records list several courses he took while attending the Corpus Christi Police Academy, but the agency does not appear in his service history.

Moreno conceded in a letter to a prospective employer that he had been kicked out of the academy in late January 2014, just days before graduation. Moreno’s letter states only that he was let go due to violating “probation standards.”

Corpus Christi Police Department headquarters. (KSAT)

After the Defenders formally requested records related to Moreno’s exit from the academy, Corpus Christi city officials late last month attempted to block their release, claiming in a letter to the Texas Attorney General that the information “is highly intimate or embarrassing and the publication of it would be highly objectionable to a reasonable person.”

Months after he was kicked out of the academy, Moreno began working as a jailer working for the Nueces County Sheriff’s Office in April 2014. He had previously worked in a similar position at a Robstown private prison from May 2012 to August 2013.

Though an NCSO assistant chief deputy told Taft police officials in September 2018 that Moreno had no discipline issues or investigations for misconduct in his personnel file, officials are attempting to block that same file from being released to the Defenders.

Nueces County Jail. (KSAT)

An attorney representing NCSO this month asked the attorney general’s permission to withhold portions of the file because they believe it contains confidential information. The agency has not yet released the portions of the file it did not mark as confidential.

Moreno, according to TCOLE records, completed a different law enforcement academy in December 2015 and began working for the Beeville Police Department three days later.

Trouble in Beeville

Moreno’s 26-month tenure as a Beeville police officer was riddled with misconduct, personnel records show.

The Defenders uncovered at least eight discipline incidents, ranging from work absences to having sex while on-duty and in a marked patrol vehicle.

In August 2016, Moreno was issued a written counseling for not attending municipal court. Moreno blamed the absence on staying out late the night before to assist the department’s narcotics unit, records show.

Three months later, in November 2016, Moreno was handed a written reprimand for driving his patrol vehicle more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.

The reprimand noted that Moreno previously wrecked a patrol vehicle while driving to an emergency call in August 2016 and that the department had received numerous complaints about his driving from supervisors within the agency and from residents of the town.

Beeville Police Department headquarters. (KSAT)

In January 2017, Moreno was given another written counseling, this time for failing to inventory a knife that had been used in an attempted suicide.

The knife, still covered in blood and other fluids, was put in a brown paper bag and left in the top drawer of a desk instead of being placed into the department’s evidence system, records show.

The frequency of Moreno’s rule breaking ramped up in the summer of 2017.

That June, he was given a written reprimand for failing to report to duty, records show. The following month, he received another written counseling for not showing up to a department in-service. Four days later, he got another written counseling, this time for failing to make sure that his body camera was recording properly, records show.

In August 2017, Moreno added another written reprimand for directing rude behavior toward a supervisor, not following an order and for abusive language.

The department issued Moreno an indefinite suspension, tantamount to firing him, in October 2017 after an internal investigation determined he repeatedly had sex with a woman while on-duty and often in a marked patrol vehicle.

Moreno, when questioned, acknowledged having issues with fidelity, but denied violating any Beeville PD policy, records show.

That woman —who a source familiar with the case said was 19 years old at the time of the affair — also accused Moreno of angrily confronting her at her home in a partial Beeville PD uniform after she revealed the affair publicly. She told police that Moreno “got crazy,” had threatened her and that she was afraid of him.

She also revealed to police that the sex acts between her and Moreno would often take place after he picked her up in his patrol vehicle or after she met him at a city park while he was in uniform and on-duty.

Beeville Police Chief Robert Bridge, in a letter to Moreno informing him of the indefinite suspension, claimed that the department received complaints from three other women that same month who all criticized Moreno’s behavior.

“All three females complained of the manner in which you approached them, the questions that you asked and that you made them feel uncomfortable,” Bridge wrote.

Moreno received an indefinite suspension from the Beeville Police Department in October 2017. (KSAT)

Moreno, through a union attorney, appealed his termination days later, records show. His union attorney did not respond to repeated requests from the Defenders to provide an interview for this story.

Moreno remained with Beeville PD for several more months, before leaving the agency in February 2018, TCOLE records confirm.

In a letter submitted by Moreno as part of his application for another law enforcement job, he claimed that the result of the appeal was that he be returned to work and that records from the termination be destroyed.

The Defenders, however, could find no such order for destruction of files.

Moreno, who again disputed the woman’s story and that he had broken any department rules, wrote in the letter that his union attorney advised him that it would be in his best interest to resign.

Bridge gave Moreno an honorable discharge on his license separation paperwork in February 2018, making it much easier for Moreno to land another law enforcement job.

The paperwork, called an F-5, allows agencies to give an officer a General Discharge if the officer’s separation is related to a conduct investigation or a Dishonorable Discharge if the officer’s separation is tied to a criminal investigation, insubordination or untruthfulness. Bridge did not respond to repeated requests for comment on his handling of Moreno’s exit from the department.

A Sunset Committee review of TCOLE released during this year’s regular legislative session found that the agency is fragmented, with regulations that were by and large “toothless.”

The review, which noted that TCOLE does not have the authority to investigate conduct or alleged criminal actions of officers, also determined that approximately 25% of officers dishonorably discharged are later hired by another law enforcement agency.

The rehire percentage for officers given honorable and general discharges is much higher.

Texas law prohibits the state from taking away a peace officer’s license unless the officer has at least two dishonorable discharges on his or her record.

“Really providing virtually zero oversight of police officers in Texas,” said Scott Henson, policy director of Just Liberty and author of the “Grits for Breakfast” blog, which explores criminal justice issues in Texas.

“Even your plumber or barber has more regulatory oversight,” said Henson.

“Talk to my lawyers.”

Seven months after leaving Beeville, Moreno was hired by the Taft Police Department, less than 40 miles away.

Moreno’s 11-month tenure with Taft PD, a small agency north of Corpus Christi, culminated with his 2019 arrest and a civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court.

Taft Police Department headquarters. (KSAT)

In July 2019, Moreno was given a written reprimand by the department for posting a picture on Snapchat of two people not in custody who he had accused of theft while he worked an off-duty security job.

Moreno was found to have violated the agency’s social media policy and rules related to off-duty employment, since he did not have a proper secondary employment form on file, records show.

On Aug. 6, 2019, Moreno was suspended four days without pay and ordered to go through de-escalation training after a resident said the officer was verbally abusive to him during a parking dispute, according to records.

The resident told Taft PD officials that Moreno did not identify himself, talked to the person in a demanding tone and then threatened to detain the resident, records show.

Moreno was also accused of yelling at one of the resident’s relatives, leading the person to describe the interaction as “the definition of bullying and police brutality,” the complaint states.

The same day Moreno learned of his suspension, he stopped a San Antonio-area woman as she returned home with her family from visiting the coast and placed her under arrest for suspicion of drug possession, records confirm.

After Moreno put the handcuffed woman in the back seat of his patrol vehicle, Moreno asked if she had any contraband on her.

The woman, in what her attorney described to the Defenders as a “brief flirtation,” told Moreno she would go for a full-body cavity search as long as Moreno did it.

Even though Moreno attempted to manipulate his body camera in an apparent effort to stop it from recording, video and audio of the incident continued to be recorded, federal court records show.

“He reached in and groped her, and then tried to kiss her. She turned away when he tried to kiss her. And she says something about, ‘that was wrong, I shouldn’t have done that.’ And she starts to get uncomfortable,” said Robert F. White, the woman’s civil rights attorney.

White filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Moreno and the city of Taft last December, claiming that Moreno failed to follow standard police procedure and violated the woman’s constitutional rights.

“Even if she had asked him to touch her, it should have never happened. You’re not supposed to do that. It’s against the law,” said White.

Attorney Robert F. White. (KSAT)

A week after the incident between Moreno and the woman, the Texas Rangers were made aware of the incident.

The report includes the specific allegation that Moreno reached into the woman’s shirt and rubbed her chest and massaged above her clothes between her legs while she was handcuffed, records show.

Two days later, on August 16, 2019, Moreno resigned from Taft PD, effective immediately, without providing a reason.

In a written exit interview related to his resignation submitted August 22, 2019, Moreno wrote, “Everything was perfect here. I’m going to miss this place.”

That same day, then-Taft PD Chief John Cornish issued Moreno an honorable discharge.

The positive designation was given to Moreno, even though Cornish had been made aware of the criminal investigation of Moreno by the Rangers more than a week earlier, records show.

Moreno was eventually arrested on August 28, 2019 and charged with felony improper sexual activity with a person in custody, records show.

The charge is considered a civil rights violation case, according to his arrest report.

Taft PD officials declined to comment to the Defenders for this story, and referred all questions to Cornish, who left the department a week after the suit was filed against the city and Moreno.

Former Taft Police Department chief John Cornish at his home late last month. (KSAT)

Reached for comment at his home outside Corpus Christi, Cornish told the Defenders, “Talk to my lawyers,” before quickly closing the door in this reporter’s face.

White said he is in the process of getting Cornish deposed, as part of the federal lawsuit.

White, who was critical of the manner in which Texas police departments vet officers during the hiring process, said Taft PD should not have hired Moreno if they had done any sort of research into his past.

“I think they failed the moment they signed him on as an officer. He should have never been a police officer anywhere,” said White.

Moreno, who was at his home in Robstown when the Defenders stopped by late last month, did not come outside and did not respond to a request for interview for this story.

A man at the home said Moreno was asleep after working all night. After the Defenders described the nature of the story being worked on, the man said he was familiar with the accusations against Moreno then asked that the Defenders leave the property.

Moreno is scheduled for a plea hearing in his felony case in San Patricio County on July 20.

Officials have yet to formally charge the alleged victim for drug possession and will likely not move forward with prosecuting her, according to White.

About the Authors

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.

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.

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