DA argues to stay on Barrientes Vela case, calls basis of motion to remove him ‘pure fiction’

Defense claims alleged comments made by DA’s former political consultant created an appearance of impropriety

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales on the witness stand Aug. 5. (Joshua Saunders, KSAT)

SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales this week pushed back on an attempt to remove his office from prosecuting indicted ex-constable Michelle Barrientes Vela, claiming the defense’s motion to have him disqualified failed to provide evidence of any conflict of interest.

The motion, filed Wednesday in 226th District Court by the lead prosecutor in Barrientes Vela’s upcoming public corruption trial, comes a week after attorneys for the one-time Precinct 2 constable claimed Gonzales should be removed and replaced by an outside attorney after comments made this summer by the DA’s former political consultant.

That consultant, Robert Vargas III, who helped Gonzales defeat incumbent Nico LaHood in the March 2018 Democratic primary before departing the campaign, was accused in June 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.

LaHood, former DA political consultant spar during Barrientes Vela hearing

Meza entered the alleged comments by Vargas into the record in late June, leading to a formal evidentiary hearing being held on the allegations in early August.

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

Attorneys for Barrientes Vela, including LaHood, argued that Vargas and Gonzales are still politically tied to one another, pointing to pictures of the two men standing together at public events.

The state’s response this week countered that Vargas has not worked for Gonzales’ campaign since early April 2018.

“Merely being photographed at various events with District Attorney Gonzales or being previously employed by District Attorney Gonzales does not afford the person any elevated level of political influence over the District Attorney or his office. To make such a claim or connection is untenable,” the response states.

Prosecutors also took issue with the claim that Gonzales has a history of supporting candidates to run against judges who have ruled against his wishes.

The state’s response claims that Gonzales’ decision to endorse a candidate who ran against Judge Frank Castro in last year’s Democratic primary was based on Gonzales knowing the candidate for over 30 years.

“Claiming ‘Mr. Gonzales’ admitted and documented history of publicly supporting primary challenges to sitting district court judges who have displeased him makes real the threat to Judge Meza’s judicial independence’ is nowhere in the record. It is pure fiction,” the response states.

Michelle Barrientes Vela invoked Fifth Amendment more than 100 times during taped deposition

The state’s response also suggested that if Barrientes Vela’s attorneys believe Meza’s impartiality was undermined by Vargas’ alleged comments, the proper remedy would be to have Meza recuse herself from the case.

The trials of both Barrientes Vela and her former captain, Marc D. Garcia, were transferred to Meza’s court this spring after Judge Ron Rangel recused himself.

Rangel, in a text message sent after the recusal, said he wanted “to guard against even an appearance of conflict” after Barrientes Vela previously posted a picture on Facebook of her and the judge at a 2018 human trafficking conference.

Judge Sid Harle, who sat in for Meza during the August evidentiary hearing, will be tasked with ruling on the motion, a court official previously told the Defenders.

Barrientes Vela and Garcia, who face a combined nine public corruption charges, 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.


About the Author:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined the KSAT 12 Defenders in 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat. He provides restaurant health reports for KSAT's "Behind the Kitchen Door." Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.