Embattled San Antonio constable now under federal scrutiny

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Bexar County Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela, who has tangled with top county officials, been sued by her former deputies and been accused of shaking down park-goers for security services, is under investigation by the FBI and the Texas Rangers.

Michelle Lee, the FBI spokeswoman in San Antonio, confirmed that federal and state investigators on Monday raided Vela’s home and office in the northwest part of San Antonio. “To ensure the integrity of the investigation, that’s all the information we can provide,” Lee said in a statement provided to reporters.

A call left with the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety, was not returned by the time this story was posted.

The raid, Vela told The Texas Monitor on Tuesday, was spurred by a conspiracy involving two deputies she fired, who have since sued not only her but also Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, District Attorney Joe Gonzales, County Judge Nelson Wolff and several other top law local enforcement officials.

While she was not told what investigators were looking for, Vela said they took her work and personal cell phones and computer files, including documents pertaining to several open investigations.

“They violated us yesterday when they came into this office when we’ve done nothing wrong,” Vela said. “You have to go back to when I first ran for office. There is a disrespect that I get from a mostly male good-old-boy network in law enforcement in this county.”

Vela said she felt the disrespect last September when she had uniform patches made for all of her uniformed officers with her initials on them celebrating her election as the first woman constable and billed Bexar County for $2,147.

The county rejected the bill when it was discovered a female constable first served in Bexar County in 1941.

Sheriff’s deputies complained that Vela began ticketing their patrol cars out of spite after she failed to get her reimbursement. Those tickets were dismissed, according to sheriff’s department records.

Leonicio Moreno, Vela’s chief deputy, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Vela demoted him in retaliation for spurning her sexual advances in a hot tub during a July 2017 work retreat in Galveston. Vela has several times denied the allegation.

Vela had fired Moreno and another of her deputies, Chris De La Cerda, in June 2018, after a state investigation concluded they had falsified their training records. The Bexar County Civil Service Commission overturned Vela’s decision and they were rehired.

In January, Moreno announced his intention to run for constable against Vela in 2020. Vela told The Texas Monitor that when it came to her attention that Moreno had falsified two complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about her treatment of him, she obtained a warrant for his arrest.

Moreno, however, contended Vela had ordered her deputies to delay his arrest on April 30 so she could notify the media that he was being booked into the Bexar County Jail, an allegation Vela has also denied.

Prosecutors in the district attorney’s office dismissed the charges and Moreno was released in a few hours, The Texas Monitor reported. “We have determined that they [Moreno’s actions] don’t rise to the level of committing a crime,” Gonzales said.

De La Cerda, fired a second time by Vela for filing what she said were false claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act,  sued Vela again in state district court for retaliation.

What began with her attempt to clean up her department, Vela said Tuesday, became a concerted effort led by Moreno and De La Cerda to turn the law enforcement establishment against her.

 “Those two officers were being used,” Vela said. “I work solely for my constituents, not for political influence and not for political favors.”

In January she attempted to throw Salazar off the grounds of the annual San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, for using a VIP entrance to attend a ceremonial breakfast rather than an entrance secured by one of Vela’s deputies. 

On Monday during the raid on her office, Vela announced she intends to run against Salazar for sheriff in 2020.

Of Vela’s accusations of conspiracy, Salazar said Monday, “That sort of stuff does bother us, and does hurt, but we have to make a distinction. As far as the sheriff’s office and this situation, we’re going to take care of business and make sure the public is protected.”

During the spring, another clash between Vela and other officials cost a local civilian several hundred dollars. The man had reserved a pavilion in Rodriguez Park with Bexar Heritage and Parks Department for an Easter picnic.

Overruling the coordinator for county parks security, Vela and a deputy stepped in and provided the security personally because the park is in her precinct. At $50 an hour, it cost the man $300 total, according to a San Antonio Express-News story.

Vela told the newspaper she took charge because there was drinking at the picnic.

Parks Director Betty Bueché said she contacted the man who had reserved the park spot and offered him compensation. “That is not the way this is supposed to work,” she told the Express-News. “Constable Vela decided to be there herself, and that was not part of the plan that we had.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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