SAN ANTONIO – A visiting judge has denied a motion to have the Bexar County district attorney disqualified from the public corruption case of Michelle Barrientes Vela, setting the state for the indicted ex-constable to finally go to trial nearly two years after she and a member of her administration were indicted.
Judge Sid Harle shot down the defense’s motion days after officials with DA Joe Gonzales’ office argued it failed to demonstrate a conflict of interest and its basis for being filed in the first place was “pure fiction.”
Attorneys for Barrientes Vela had argued that alleged comments made this summer by Gonzales’ one-time political consultant, Robert Vargas III, prevented the former constable from having her due process rights to a fair trial.
Harle, who oversaw the evidentiary hearing tied to the motion in early August, disagreed.
Vargas, 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 trial.
Meza entered the alleged comments by Vargas into the record in late June, leading to the formal evidentiary hearing being held on the allegations.
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 last 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 stated.
Prosecutors also took issue with the claim from the defense that Gonzales has a history of supporting candidates to run against judges who have ruled against his wishes.
The state’s response claimed 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 stated.
Barrientes Vela is scheduled to go to trial Dec. 6 on two felony counts of tampering with records.
She also faces three misdemeanor counts of official oppression.
All charges are related to her tumultuous 33-month tenure as constable of Bexar County Precinct 2.
Her former captain, Marc D. Gracia, faces a felony aggravated perjury charge as well as three counts of official oppression.
His trial, also scheduled to begin Dec. 6, will likely be pushed to 2022.