In a special meeting scheduled for Thursday morning, members of the El Paso City Council will be discussing a newly released audit that revealed two city representatives may have used their taxpayer-funded gas cards to fuel two or more vehicles.
The meeting comes on the heels of the city's Financial Audit and Oversight Committee (FOAC) meeting held on May 4 when Chief Internal Auditor Edmundo Calderon went over the audit report that included gasoline usage by former and current council members, and the mayor.
According to the audit, two city council members, including former District 6 Representative Claudia Rodriguez and current District 3 Representative Cassandra Hernandez, purchased the most gasoline compared to their peers in 2022.
Calderon told members of FOAC he received an anonymous tip in November 2022 from someone who said former El Paso City District 6 Representative Claudia Rodriguez was using her gasoline card for campaign-related purposes. She lost her re-election bid in November.
Hernandez, according to the audit, accounted for 35% of all fuel purchased in 2022. The audit shows Hernandez purchased a little over 1,943 gallons of gasoline costing taxpayers $6,691.
Former District 6 Representative Claudia Rodriguez accounted for over 27% of all fuel purchased among council members and the mayor in 2022, according to the audit. The audit shows she purchased little over 1,458 gallons of gasoline costing taxpayers $5,293.
“Based on the amount of fuel being purchased, and frequency of fuel purchased, on consecutive days in Calendar Year 2022, the data indicates that two or more vehicles are being fueled,” Calderon told FOAC members on May 4 during a review of the audit. “The amount of fuel purchased by District 3 for Calendar Year 2022 appears excessive.”
Representative Cassandra Hernandez repelled the allegations.
On a statement on May 3 that said, in part, “As your elected representative, I am deeply concerned about recent actions taken by the Financial Oversight and Audit Committee. It has come to my attention that the committee is allegedly utilizing the internal auditor department to attack minority members of city council by cherry-picking gas card expenses.” Of the 8-member council, three are women.
At the May 4 meeting, Chief Internal Auditor Edmundo Calderon confirmed to current FOAC members, including District 1 City Representative Brian Kennedy, District 2 City Rep. Alexsandra Annello, District 6 Rep. Art Fierro and District 4 City Rep. Joe Molinar, the audit was approved in October 2022 by past committee members.
They included Representative Hernandez herself, plus District 5 Rep. Isabel Salcido, District 7's Henry Rivera, and former District 8 Rep. Cissy Lizarraga.
ABC-7 caught up with Representative Hernandez at City Hall on Tuesday, May 9. Hernandez said she has not been afforded the opportunity to look at the report in advance, nor, according to her, has she been given the opportunity to digest what she said the auditor considers to be observations.
“So, no due process has been afforded to me,” Hernandez told ABC-7 outside City Hall on Tuesday. "But, based on the observations from the internal auditor, he had found that the, what he considers to be excessive, but I want to reiterate that the police department has conducted an unbiased and thorough Investigaton; they have closed the matter without any findings or violations so we’re very confident and we stand by our record that, you know, all of the expenditures were due to business-related expenses, but I do use my personal vehicles, you know, I just mentioned earlier I do have five children and we spend a lot of our time working very hard, and I take it very seriously the work that we do. I’m a full-time representative, this is all that I do, I don’t have a side business, I don’t do any other work, I dedicate 100% of my time to city council. In fact, I probably work 50 to 60 hours a week, including evenings and weekends,” Hernandez said.
The police investigation Hernandez is referring to was also discussed at the May 4 FOAC meeting. The internal auditor said police investigated the matter after he had reached out inquiring how his office could obtain gas station surveillance video. According to Calderon, he was told by El Paso police it did not find anything criminal in its investigation of the matter.
ABC-7 has reached out to the El Paso Police Department twice seeking comment. We have not heard back.
ABC-7 asked Hernandez, "Has anyone in your family or any friends used your gas card, can you say today if just you are the only one?"
"Yes, I can confidently say I'm the only one who uses it, in fact I have thousands of dollars of personal expenses that we used for our family, for fuel expenses, but if the auditor or if council ever gave us an opportunity to present (that) those facts then we’d be happy to share that, but again, they haven’t afforded that opportunity to me," Hernandez answered.
Former City Representative Claudia Rodriguez released a statement on May 3 saying she was the only person to use her gasoline card. She also said the city does not have a fuel card policy, but it should.
Hernandez said her family would pay the city $6,700 from personal funds, "an amount that covers a year of authorized gas expenses," she wrote in a statement. "I hope this action effectively resolves any distraction caused by politically motivated attacks."
She also launched a $50 gas card giveaway for ten El Paso residents if they Liked or Followed her official Facebook page. "That's it! We strive to keep the public informed on important city issues. (No City funds used to purchase fuel cards)," read the post.
According to the audit, there were a number of what it called ‘deficiencies’ found in the city’s current commercial fuel card policy.
“The policy is specific on use of the Commercial Fuel Card by City Employees on City owned vehicles while conducting City Business,” the report stated. “The Policy does not address the use of Commercial Fuel Cards by Members of the City Council. Also, the policy does not provide guidance on the use of the Commercial Fuel Card on Privately Owned Vehicles (POV) used by Members of the City Council.”
The audit also said the current policy does not require the use of the Department Record of Fuel Purchasing Log. It is only "encouraged."
The auditor made a recommendation to get rid of the fuel cards, and replace them with a vehicle allowance.
Gasoline usage was first brought up at an El Paso City Council meeting on April 25. During that meeting, the El Paso City Council approved two items that dealt with council's usage of taxpayer-funded gas cards: 1) it wants to put a spending cap on the now unlimited gasoline cards and 2) directing the city manager to give each representative a monthly report on expenditures, including gasoline card usage.
City Representative Art Fierro said he placed the items on the agenda because there's no checks and balances system or policies in place to hold council members accountable for the taxpayer funded credit cards.
ABC-7 has filed a public records request on April 19 with the city on behalf of our viewers under the Texas Public Information Act. Those requested public records included receipts for gas and purchasing cards.
The city initially sent a letter to ABC-7 saying it would take 32 hours to produce the records and would cost $576. We’ve asked as an alternative to inspect the records.
To date, we have not heard back.