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City of El Paso’s chief auditor files suit, claims intimidation

EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- El Paso Chief Internal Auditor Edmundo Calderon has filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming it and some of its former and current staff members harassed and intimidated him following a gasoline card audit done by his office. That audit found “excessive” use of two city representatives’ taxpayer-funded gasoline cards.

Calderon is seeking between $250,000 and $1 million dollars in damages, according to the lawsuit obtained by ABC-7.

The suit, which is demanding a jury trial, names several people, including former El Paso City Manager Tommy Gonzalez, El Paso City Attorney Karla Nieman, El Paso Assistant City Attorney Juan Gonzalez, El Paso City Representative Cassandra Hernandez and Hernandez’s husband Jeremy Jordan, and El Paso resident Deborah Paz.

According to the lawsuit, Tommy Gonzalez and City Attorney Karla Nieman tried to discredit Chief Internal Auditor Edmundo Calderon's work following a gasoline card audit that his office did earlier this year.

The gasoline card report was for the 2022 calendar year and it included gasoline usage by former and current council members, and the mayor.

According to the lawsuit, Calderon says he faced retaliation as a result of his findings.

"The comments and attempts to discredit Calderon by Tommy Gonzalez and City Attorney Nieman were in retaliation for Calderon choosing to conduct the audit and not telling them sooner, so they could notify their allies who were stealing gas from the citizens of El Paso," Calderon's lawsuit read. "Tommy Gonzalez and City Attorney Karla Nieman were upset that Calderon did not tell them sooner and involved the police department in the investigation. This is because Cassandra Hernandez was their ally and the person that had been chosen to run for Mayor. Tommy Gonzalez hoped that if the votes on the El Paso City Council changed, he would be able to get his job back. City Attorney Karla Nieman also wanted Cassandra Hernandez to not have this stain, so she could keep the votes and not worry about losing her job."

ABC-7 reached out to the city for comment and it declined.

The taxpayer-funded gasoline cards were issued to members of council 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 thousands of dollars more in gasoline compared to their peers in 2022. 

After investigating complaints against each, the Ethics Review Commission issued letters of reprimand to Hernandez and Rodriguez.    

Rodriguez denied wrongdoing and refused to participate in the commission’s investigation. Hernandez paid back the money and argued the number of hours she dedicates to her work as city representative more than make up for the gasoline overage.

The audit

Chief Internal Auditor Calderon said 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.   

The audit further pointed out what it called ‘deficiencies’ in the city’s 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 2022 report was also forwarded to the El Paso Police Department. Documents obtained by ABC-7 showed El Paso police investigators said they were unable to find anything criminal in their investigation of the matter.      

Calderon said he initially reached out to the police department to obtain video from gas stations where the cards were used. 

One of the videos, obtained by ABC-7, showed Hernandez’s husband filling up two different family vehicles which members of the Ethics Review Commission ruled was an inappropriate use of the taxpayer-funded gas benefit.  

At a May 4 meeting, Chief Internal Auditor Edmundo Calderon confirmed to current Financial Oversight and Audit Committee (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 Cassandra Hernandez, plus District 5 Rep. Isabel Salcido, District 7's  Henry Rivera, and former District 8 Rep. Cissy Lizarraga.  

Alleged intimidation

Calderon said shortly after that the harassment began.    

On July 21, he filed a whistleblower grievance with the city, which is required under Texas law before a lawsuit can be filed.

Calderon's attorney, Laura Enriquez, sent a three-page letter to El Paso City Attorney Karla Nieman and El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser that day.

Enriquez claimed her client was the victim of harassment and retaliation by then-city manager Tommy Gonzalez and his staff.   

"Gonzalez was intimidating my client, trying to influence his work and impede his independence as the City Chief Internal Auditor making references to a request for a raise," the July 21 letter stated, referencing a May 18 meeting.  

Calderon's attorney also said that on June 9 he (Calderon) was denied a budget request for cybersecurity work for $250,000 and was only approved for $100,000.   

Enriquez declined to comment to KVIA about the lawsuit.

On September 13, the El Paso City Council voted to approve the hiring of outside counsel regarding the whistleblower complaint.    

ABC-7 reached out to El Paso City spokesperson Laura Cruz-Acosta by email on December 14 to check the status of the grievance. In her email response, she said there is no update because the city council has not taken any public action on the complaint.  

"Until the Council takes action there are no next steps that would be discussed publicly on this executive session item," Cruz-Acosta said in her email response to KVIA. 

Structural changes

During the turbulent time described in the lawsuit, both before and after Calderon issued his final audit report on May 11, several major changes took place at city hall.

  • Voters approved a change to the city’s charter that effectively changed the reporting structure for the chief auditor. The position used to report to the city manager and the Financial Oversight and Audit Committee (FOAC) made up of members of council. After May 6, the chief auditor reported to FOAC alone. When asked whether that assuaged fears of intimidation and retaliation as Gonzalez was no longer his supervisor, Calderon told ABC-7 he still feared Gonzalez’s influence.
  • Council terminated City Manager Gonzalez’s contract on February 28. Interim City Manager Cary Westin took over duties on June 1.
  • After the election, the audit charter was also amended to more clearly delineate the chief internal auditor must report any potential criminal audit findings first to the city manager, city attorney and the FOAC, then the pertinent authorities. The prior version, which would’ve been in effect when Calderon says he was being pressed by Gonzalez and Nieman on why he didn’t inform them sooner, does not prioritize the order of notifications, though it does say the city manager and the FOAC must be notified.

ABC-7 has reached out to all the parties involved in the lawsuit.

Deborah Paz declined to comment.

We will update you as more information becomes available.

To read the lawsuit, click here.

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