Accusations of shoddy hiring practices dog Texas State University police department

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Texas State University campus in San Marcos. Texas State University

The former police chief at Texas State University and his top deputy were accused of hiring unqualified officers — including one who allegedly “slept with a sexual assault victim” while investigating her case — and presiding over a department marked by favoritism, low morale and high turnover, according to an internal university memo obtained by The Texas Tribune and police department correspondence.

Former Chief Jose Bañales and his chief of staff, Lt. Alex Villalobos, were also accused of overruling investigators who tried to flag problematic job applicants, according to the records.

In a separate lawsuit filed in early November, a 17-year department veteran claims he was fired for reporting “violations of law” committed by university employees, including falsification of documents by Bañales and Villalobos. The lawsuit filed by Jason Moreno claims Villalobos also “used information obtained through his law enforcement position for personal benefit of a brother” — a former Cameron County District Attorney — “who had been charged with and convicted of racketeering and bribery.” He was investigated by the university for doing so in 2013.

Bañales and Villalobos both resigned from Texas State in mid-2018, and Villalobos is now a Kyle City Council member and is running for Hays County Sheriff. He previously told the Tribune that he resigned to pursue a new professional opportunity, and he did not respond to recent requests for comment.

Bañales, who owns a consulting company, denied many of the allegations in the university memo and questioned its veracity. He said he made strides at Texas State to rehabilitate a police force that had high turnover, lax processes and poor records management when he arrived. He characterized the department veteran who’s sued as an aggrieved former employee who had fomented “deceptive” allegations against him.

“Very quickly when I got there, I found that it was a toxic environment with various factions within the department, and I did institute some more accountability in the hiring process,” Bañales said. “I would blame the leadership of the past for failing to recognize they had to formalize the process for that.

“A lot of these things happened prior to my tenure with Texas State, and we were putting things in motion to rectify some of these issues,” he said.

Bañales left the university, in part, because he felt he didn’t have final authority over new hires and personnel matters, he said. His predecessor, Ralph Meyer, said the department followed the university’s rules on hiring during his tenure and that Bañales did not.

The accusations come as Texas State is under review by federal authorities for grossly underreporting the number of rapes and other crimes on campus during Bañales’ and Villalobos’ tenure. The university — one of the largest public higher education institutions in Texas — could face steep fines for violating a federal statute that requires accurate crime reporting so students and parents can assess campus safety.

School officials are making reforms, and a new police chief was brought on last February.

In a statement, the university said the memo summarizes “unsubstantiated allegations brought forward by members of the university police department” in April 2018 — a month before Bañales resigned — and that “many of the individuals referenced in the document” are no longer employed there. Asked about Moreno’s lawsuit, the university declined to comment on pending litigation.

Texas State’s police force protects more than 38,000 students, most enrolled at the picturesque main campus in San Marcos, south of Austin. Police employees operate a nighttime ride service and offer other safety programs, but officers are also expected to respond to incidents as serious as bomb threats, homicides and active shooters. All are issued weapons.

Texas State hired Villalobos — who owned a private investigation company called Intrepid Intel Research, in Kyle — in 2007. His annual reviews at the university were overwhelmingly positive, and he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in October 2016, five months after Bañales was hired. A LinkedIn profile bearing Villalobos’ name shows he became the chief of staff around the same time.

In a 2017 email to local Hays County prosecutors, Bañales said Villalobos had received “verbal counseling” after a 2013 university investigation found he used a law enforcement search tool for personal purposes. At some point, Villalobos’ name was added to a register kept by Hays County prosecutors to flag people whose character could be questioned if they are put on the witness stand in court cases. Many prosecutors keep similar lists — often referred to as Brady lists. Bañales said he never received confirmation that Villalobos was on the local list and that the investigation happened years before he arrived.

Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau would not discuss details of his office’s list but said it is a “39.14 disclosure list,” meaning it includes more names than might appear on other prosecutors’ Brady lists.

“At some agencies, for example, if you’re on the Brady list, that means you have been caught lying or you have been convicted of a crime,” he said. The Hays County list is far broader — reflecting a wide array of infractions and other information “that could be exculpatory or mitigating,” he said. The office doesn’t disclose the information to third parties, in keeping with state policy.

Bañales was hired in 2016 after three decades at the San Antonio Police Department, where he climbed from the rank of patrol officer to assistant chief, overseeing more than 2,000 sworn officers and support staff, according to a job application he completed.

A military veteran, Texas State alumnus and graduate of the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Bañales professed his ability to balance “the social and human considerations inherent to management of a large and diverse service organization” in an October 2015 letter expressing his interest in the Texas State job.

After his first year as chief, Bañales received a laudatory performance review from his supervisor, Vice President for Student Affairs Joanne Smith, who gave him top marks for goals like recruiting and retaining “high-quality, diverse staff.” Bañales similarly touted his efforts that year to “streamline the hiring process for police officers” and told the Tribune he brought more ethnic minorities onto the force.

But the lengthy memo prepared by the university’s human resources department captures a bleaker picture of his tenure. Seven pages long, the document summarizes a “variety of concerns” raised by police employees in private meetings, from hiring “people that may be related and/or connected” to the chief, to “promoting people on the Brady list.”

The memo and other university records viewed by the Tribune identify several problematic hires, including one man who had “very poor employment history” and a “history of dishonesty and being deceitful.” Another had “multiple unauthorized personal purchases on a state issued travel credit card” and exhibited “poor police tactics … during police pursuits putting the public in danger.”

The department “became the dumping ground,” said one officer in an interview. “Everybody started knowing us as: Just go apply at Texas State because they’ll hire anybody.”

The memo said eight grievances were filed after Bañales was hired and that the department's employee turnover rate hit 55.7%. Between November 2017 and April 2018, 10 to 15 “employee relations” meetings had also been requested, according to the memo.

Most of the employees who met with human resources criticized Bañales’ hiring practices.

In one HR meeting described in the memo, a male employee identified only as “Witness” said he was told to conduct a background check on an applicant although he had no formal training in how to do so. The applicant did not have the required 60 college credit hours and may have had an arrest history. The applicant’s former supervisor reportedly told the witness the applicant was “not rehirable here.”

But when the witness raised concerns about the applicant’s background, he was told by a supervisor to “not discuss this with anyone else” and was later directed to “re-word” his recommendation that the man not be hired. The applicant was hired.

Bañales eventually told investigators assigned to background check job applicants to stop issuing recommendations on whether prospective hires were qualified, according to the memo and interviews with more than half a dozen current and former police employees. Some members of the department were also asked to sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from talking about how new hires were vetted.

Bañales disputed parts of the memo and disagreed with the way many of his decisions were portrayed.

He said privacy agreements are commonly used to protect financial and other personal information included in most job applications, and he recalled overruling an investigator only once — for a man with “one blemish” who turned out to be a “fine officer” and had credentials the department needed.

He acknowledged he changed the vetting process so that only he or a top official — like Villalobos — could make recommendations about hires. Previously, the decisions were made by lower-level officers who he alleged were “gaming the system.” Later, he said there was no formalized hiring process at all before he joined.

Bañales said he did not remember hearing that an applicant had allegedly slept with a sexual assault victim, as the internal university memo recounted. One person with knowledge of the incident told the Tribune they recalled that the job applicant allegedly slept with a stalking victim.

Bañales also said a different hire with a possible arrest history was not charged with a criminal offense, so he couldn’t “hold that against him.”

And he dismissed other employee complaints in the memo, including that the department was riven by low morale, fear of retaliation, little transparency and preferential treatment in the hiring and internal promotion processes. “That describes the environment I walked into that I tried to change,” he said.

In its statement, Texas State cited a number of changes made since Bañales’ departure and said it is committed to providing “a safe and secure environment in which to live, learn and work.” A reform-minded police chief with experience working in university law enforcement was hired this year, and she has made a number of reforms suggested by a peer review the university requested in 2018. A summary of that peer review said the department was understaffed and “seriously deficient” in key areas like emergency management planning and operations.

The police department’s website advertises a $46,000 starting salary for officers and says prospective employees must pass a criminal background check and not have convictions more serious than a class B misdemeanor, offenses like driving while intoxicated or some criminal mischief. The department is expected to begin a three-year accreditation process in 2020 to give “the university community confidence that the department is adhering to best practices.”

University officials have blamed bad software, poor communication and previous chiefs, including Bañales — who had not worked in university police departments before — for the bungled crime statistics that landed the school in the Education Department’s crosshairs.

Bañales said administrators were “slow to respond” to his warnings, citing a PowerPoint presentation he gave administrators in 2017 about problems with crime reporting and related federal requirements.

Bañales’ former supervisor, Smith, is retiring at the end of the academic year, and the department now reports to a different vice president, Eric Algoe, who oversees finance and support services. University officials say Smith’s departure is unrelated to problems in the police department and that the change in organizational structure reflects a “best practice for university law enforcement entities.”

Texas State has not released most documents related to the incorrect crime statistics that the Tribune requested and paid for under public information laws — including any letter from the Education Department that outlines the scope of the federal review. The university said it complies with all applicable laws.

But S. Daniel Carter, a Georgia-based campus security consultant and expert on the federal crime-reporting statute called the Clery Act, said the federal government imposes the maximum financial penalty — more than $57,000 — for each violent crime that is omitted. Earlier this year, Texas State had to correct its published campus safety statistics to show there were 39 rapes in 2016 and 2017, not eight, as it had previously reported. Other categories of crime had incorrect figures as well.

Disclosure: The Texas State University System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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