Judge denies motion to remove DA from Barrientes Vela public corruption case

Barrientes Vela scheduled to go to trial on fabricating evidence charges in less than six weeks

Defendant Michelle Barrientes Vela leaves court earlier this year while flanked by supporters. (Joshua Saunders, KSAT)

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 one-time constable from having her due process rights to a fair trial.

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

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.

There were several agitated moments in early August between attorney Nico LaHood and political consultant Robert Vargas. (KSAT)

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.

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

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.


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.