SAN ANTONIO – The upcoming public corruption trial of indicted ex-Bexar County constable Michelle Barrientes Vela took another turn this week as her attorneys filed a formal motion to have District Attorney Joe Gonzales removed from the case.
Citing the “existence of a conflict of interest,” attorney Patrick Ballantyne told the court Gonzales should be disqualified and an outside attorney should be appointed to prosecute the one-time Precinct 2 constable.
The filing of the seven-page motion comes more than two months after an evidentiary hearing was held in the case, regarding alleged statements made by Gonzales’ former campaign consultant, Robert Vargas III.
Vargas, who helped Gonzales defeat incumbent Nico LaHood in the March 2018 Democratic primary before departing the campaign, was accused of saying he would find someone to run in the next primary election against Democrat Judge Velia Meza if Meza “didn’t do the right thing” in Barrientes Vela’s upcoming trial.
The alleged comments were made in late June, while Vargas prepared to host a radio show.
“The evidence developed at the hearing demonstrates the existence of a conflict of interest creating an appearance of impropriety of such magnitude and character that the public’s perception of a fair, nonpartisan, and ethical criminal justice system would be severely undermined by Mr. Gonzales’s office being permitted to prosecute this case. Should Mr. Gonzales’s office be allowed to represent the State, Ms. Vela would be deprived of her due process rights to a fair trial,” the motion states.
Gonzales, who was effusive in his praise of Vargas while testifying Aug. 5, did not provide a comment for this story.
A spokesperson Wednesday afternoon said Gonzales’ office cannot comment on pending cases.
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, the 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.
Judge Sid Harle, who sat in for Meza during the August hearing, will be tasked with ruling on the motion, a court official previously told the Defenders.
The motion incorrectly states that Vargas’ work for Gonzales took place during the 2016 primary campaign.
Reached for comment Wednesday, Vargas released the following statement:
“Judge Velia Meza introduced unsubstantiated statements into the record and created a path for Mr. LaHood to file a motion that is conclusory and without factual support. Clearly this filing is a desperate attempt at political retaliation because he lost an election.”
LaHood, whose firm was hired last year to represent Barrientes Vela, sparred with Vargas throughout much of the hearing in August.
Vargas pointed out to LaHood while testifying that he had helped Gonzales beat him in the 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.
The motion to disqualify Gonzales also accuses the DA of showing a pattern of “supporting judicial candidates running in primary elections against sitting judges who have ruled against his wishes.”
The motion also states that even after Vargas departed Gonzales’ campaign in the spring of 2018, the two men were frequently photographed together at public events.
Barrientes Vela and her former Precinct 2 captain, Marc D. Garcia, are tentatively scheduled to go to trial Dec. 6.
Court officials previously said Barrientes Vela would be tried first, meaning in all likelihood Garcia’s trial will be pushed to 2022.