SAN ANTONIO – Former Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood and the person who helped the current DA knock him out of office sparred Thursday during an evidentiary hearing in the case against indicted former constable Michelle Barrientes Vela.
The hours-long hearing, which took place in front of visiting Judge Sid Harle, created an official record of alleged comments made by Vargas prior to hosting a radio show in late June and whether those comments constituted a political threat against the judge overseeing this case.
Vargas, a political consultant who has worked for several prominent Bexar County Democrats, including Sheriff Javier Salazar and District Attorney Joe Gonzales, was accused of saying he would find someone to run in the primary election against fellow Democrat Judge Velia Meza if Meza “didn’t do the right thing” in Barrientes Vela’s upcoming public corruption trial.
Attorneys for Barrientes Vela contend the comments, if made, cloud the ability of Gonzales’ office to prosecute the case since Gonzales once employed Vargas.
A guest on Vargas’ radio show, Bexar County Assistant District Attorney Mike Villarreal, testified that Vargas made the comment to another guest who was there representing the Bexar County Precinct 2 Constable’s Office, an office previously held by Barrientes Vela.
“Made a comment that if she doesn’t do the right thing, meaning the judge, then he will run someone against her,” said Villarreal, himself a Democratic candidate for Bexar County Court at Law 13 who employs the same political consultant as Meza.
Villarreal said he relayed the comment to the consultant after making his appearance on Vargas’ show.
The comments were then relayed to Meza, who in late June hastily called a hearing to put the alleged comments from Vargas on the record.
Vargas, who testified after Villarreal that he could not recall making the comments, engaged in an agitated back and forth with LaHood while on the stand that included repeated objections from the lead prosecutor in the case.
Vargas had earlier pointed out to LaHood that he had helped Gonzales beat him in the March 2018 primary, before LaHood took aim at Vargas’ education and professional experience and whether he had been honest about his background when being hired for a job with the sheriff’s office.
“Witness veracity is always a question. And when you get into a ‘he said, he said’ situation, then all these are integral in making an assessment on someone’s truthfulness,” LaHood told KSAT after the hearing wrapped up.
After the prosecutor at one point objected to LaHood’s line of questioning of Vargas, LaHood referred to Vargas as a hostile witness.
LaHood and Vargas also went back and forth about whether Vargas holds a high opinion of Barrientes Vela. After Vargas confirmed that he does not, LaHood quickly responded that Barrientes Vela does not hold a high opinion of Vargas.
During an interview with KSAT after the hearing, Vargas’ personal attorney, David Tijerina, pushed back on the notion that Vargas somehow “muddied the waters” of an already complicated criminal case.
“I think it’s the defense counsel that is trying to muddy the waters and make it look like something that it’s not,” said Tijerina.
Thursday’s hearing, which was originally supposed to take place in mid-July, likely served as a precursor to attorneys representing Barrientes Vela filing a formal motion to have Gonzales’ office removed from prosecuting the case.
Gonzales, escorted into court by a security detail, testified after Villarreal and Vargas that his business relationship with Vargas ended in the spring of 2018 after Vargas helped him defeat LaHood in the primary.
And although Gonzales later helped to campaign for Vargas for a statewide elected position within the Democratic party, he testified that it was unreasonable to believe that someone he had not employed in well over three years could still have influence over him or impact his office’s ability to prosecute a former Bexar County elected official.
Gonzales praised Vargas’ work on his primary campaign, describing his former consultant as a “bundle of energy,” but said it was ultimately Vargas’ decision to depart the campaign after determining he could no longer operate effectively as a campaign co-manager.
Gonzales, interestingly, was questioned by LaHood’s co-counsel, Jason Goss, instead of by LaHood, meaning those people attending the hearing missed out on the chance to see the former DA examine the current DA.
Gonzales took the stand despite multiple objections from the lead prosecutor in the case.
The DA’s testimony, however, ended up being nowhere near as contentious as Vargas’.
At the conclusion of the hearing Harle said that he would provide the transcripts and exhibits to Meza and let her decide who should issue a ruling once a motion is filed.
Barrientes Vela, who faces multiple charges of tampering with evidence and official oppression, was scheduled to go to trial on the tampering charges in late September.
That trial will in all likelihood be delayed after the local administrative judge announced this week that he is suspending in-person juries due to a resurgence of COVID-19 cases.