Controversial constable might have to leave the post she’s proud of

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As federal and state investigators were going through her San Antonio home and office Monday, Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela told reporters she intends to run against Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, one of several law enforcement officials she said were conspiring to drive her out of office.

Vela’s announcement may have triggered a section of the Texas Constitution dealing with elected officeholders  that says “such announcement or such candidacy shall constitute an automatic resignation of the office then held … .”

Several opinions by past Texas attorneys general support that reading of Vela’s statements.

Neither the Texas Secretary of State Elections Division nor the Bexar County Elections Department have released statements pertaining to Vela’s comments.

Vela, who had previously announced that she intended to run for a second four-year term as constable in 2020, told KENS-TV in San Antonio on Tuesday she was not aware of the resign-to-run clause in the Texas Constitution. 

County records show Vela has taken no formal steps in a candidacy for sheriff, such as forming a campaign committee or taking on a treasurer. Vela said she didn’t think she’d done anything wrong and that she would take the necessary steps to file as a candidate when the time came.

“I’m not doing anything no other elected official would do,” Vela told KENS. “Everyone’s in seat right now. When the election time comes up for us to begin that process, I will do just like anybody else and go through the process the same way.”

The question of whether she can continue on as constable is just the latest in a series of clashes with personnel in her own department and with Salazar, District Attorney Joe Gonzales, County Judge Nelson Wolff and several other top law local enforcement officials.

Ongoing problems with two of her deputies, one fired and one on unpaid leave, led to an evidence-gathering raid by the FBI and the Texas Rangers Monday in northwest San Antonio. Vela told The Texas Monitor Tuesday that investigators confiscated her work and personal cell phones and took files from her office and personal computers.

The FBI on Monday confirmed the investigation but would not discuss any part of it.

Vela told The Texas Monitor the raid was the culmination of incidents in which she refused to acquiesce to other law enforcement authorities in the county, most of them men. Vela has been outspoken about her pride in being the first Hispanic woman constable in Bexar County and her willingness to push back against what she calls the “old boy network” in Bexar County.

At the center of her troubles are two lawsuits filed against her by her former chief deputy, Leonicio Moreno, and former Deputy Chris De La Cerda. Both suits allege retaliation by Vela following what Moreno said was his spurning of her sexual advances in a hot tub during a July 2017 work retreat in Galveston. Vela denies the allegation.

Vela fired Moreno and De La Cerda in June 2018 for falsifying their training records and those of other deputies. However, the Bexar County Civil Service Commission ordered both reinstated.

Moreno in January announced his intention to run against Vela in 2020, but stayed on as one of her deputies. In April, Vela obtained an arrest warrant for Moreno, alleging that he falsified two Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints outlining her treatment of him on the job.

Moreno contended that Vela stage-managed his arrest for maximum press coverage to embarrass him. The district attorney’s office dismissed Vela’s charges against him and ordered him released that day.

Moreno has been on unpaid leave since March.

De La Cerda filed his suit a month ago after Vela fired him a second time, alleging that he made false claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Vela said Gonzales “did not do his job” when he dropped the charges against Moreno. “I think that’s just another part of the conspiracy,” she told The Texas Monitor Tuesday.

Vela told KENS Tuesday that regardless of what the Texas Constitution says, she has no intention of resigning as constable with almost half a term to go.

“The constituents elected me to do a job and it would be unfair for me to leave a seat vacant and unmanned,” Vela said.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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