Investigation links several city leaders to corruption, multiple plotsBy GARY SCHARRER - Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
EL PASO — Alleged bribery payoffs plotted in a bathroom stall. A truckload of county records hauled off by FBI agents. A guilty plea that alleges routine corruption by a web of current and former officials.
This city of 735,000 has been riveted by a federal bribery investigation targeting a chain of suspects, including a former White House appointee.
"It's the Manhattan Project for the El Paso FBI," said one federal agent working the case, referring to the mammoth 1940s effort to develop the atomic bomb.
So far, the former chief of staff for El Paso County Judge Anthony Cobos has pleaded guilty to four counts of conspiracy and fraud, admitting his involvement in alleged payoffs for county contracts.
In his plea document, John Travis Ketner described 17 unnamed co-conspirators in ways that make them easily recognizable to observers of El Paso politics — so recognizable that the principals have not denied that he identified them.
They include Cobos, El Paso County Commissioners Miguel Teran and Luis Sarinana — whose offices and the homes of other civic leaders were raided by 75 federal agents last month — and Luther Jones, a former state representative described as "Co-conspirator One."
Ketner also described Arturo Duran, who was President Bush's former appointee to the International Boundary and Water Commission, as the "bag man" for several alleged bribery schemes.
All have denied wrongdoing.
Contracts in question
Speculation among some community leaders is that the two-year investigation could result in the indictment of 50 people, a number a federal agent called "not unreasonable."
Adding to the intrigue is an acknowledgment from current El Paso County Commissioner Dan Haggerty that he had met secretly with FBI agents for nearly two years.
Haggerty has long been suspicious that county contracts for goods, services and construction were rigged.
"Some of the people I have worked with on Commissioner's Court are really stupid," said Haggerty, brother of longtime state Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso. "They thought they could do whatever they were doing that was totally corrupt, not knowing that it was totally corrupt.
"If this is OK, why are we meeting in this stall in the bathroom on the basement floor of the courthouse?" Haggerty said. "Why does it smell in here?"
Ketner's pleading described a courthouse restroom meeting between Cobos (described as "Co-conspirator Five") and Duran ("Co-conspirator Seven") involving a promise of money from Duran for contracts benefiting Duran's clients.The document charges that county contracts were selected based on "who offered ... the greatest amount of remuneration in money or other benefits."
Duran and Cobos have denied the allegations.
Duran served on the boundary commission until a scathing report by the State Department's inspector general two years ago forced his resignation. The report blamed Duran for creating internal management problems that engulfed the agency, "threatening its essential responsibilities for flood control and water management in the American Southwest."
After Ketner's plea became public, an indignant El Pasoan, Lisa Turner, showed up at the next commissioners court meeting to urge Cobos, Teran and Sarinana to resign.
Replying for the embattled three, Cobos blamed unnamed local power brokers for the legal storm.
"When you go against the status quo, you better be ready, because that's what I have done," Cobos said. "There are many people in this community with so much money and so much power. If I rubber-stamped what they wanted to do, this never would have happened."
After the FBI searched his office, Cobos told local reporters the agents could have simply requested documents and suggested the raid might be a "political blunt instrument to tarnish reputations."
He didn't appear any more rattled after his former chief of staff accused him.
Ketner's allegations did not trouble him, Cobos said, "because I know the truth. Obviously, they are encouraging him to get creative."
The FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office have not commented except for terse news releases after the searches and after Ketner's guilty plea.
"We have been very tight-lipped about this investigation," acknowledged El Paso FBI spokeswoman Andrea Simmons. "It's an ongoing investigation, so it's not at a stage where we can give any details."
The probe initially focused on the alleged improper use of federal funds at a nonprofit called the National Center for Employment of the Disabled, since renamed ReadyOne. It has expanded to the county courthouse and is expected to reach El Paso school districts. The FBI also has requested documents from a prior City Hall administration, two current City Council members said.
The FBI executed search warrants of 22 El Paso residences or businesses and wiretapped phones for nearly a year, an unusually long time, according to a former federal prosecutor.
"It tells me that the investigation is very far-reaching," said San Antonio lawyer Ron Ederer, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas under President George H.W. Bush. The probe is based on allegations of wrongdoing, not politics, Ederer said.
The investigation is "the subject of conversation everywhere," said longtime El Paso attorney Tom Diamond, who has served several terms as chairman of the El Paso Democratic Party.
"Out here, we're a little bit desensitized to the mordida (bribes). We have it right across the border. It's something that you don't consider because it's so prevalent in Mexico. I think it kind of bleeds over into our society," he said.
But that's changing, said Ederer, who practiced law in El Paso for 18 years before becoming a U.S. attorney.
"The city is no longer a little border town," he said. "It's growing by leaps and bounds and, as a result of that, law enforcement is becoming more sophisticated."
And industry expanding to border communities won't tolerate backroom deals, he said.
The probe, especially its gigantic scale, has angered some El Pasoans.
"We're shaking our heads. It's terrible. There is shock and outrage throughout the county," said Don Kirkpatrick, a Democratic Party activist. "What we have is a huge interlocking scandal, and at the center of it is Luther Jones."
'Cloud of gossip'
Jones, 60, served four terms in the Texas House in the 1970s. He later became El Paso county attorney and then county judge. For most of the past two decades, Jones has helped elect members to school boards, the City Council and county Commissioners Court, and he helped Ketner get his chief-of-staff job with Cobos.
Critics contend his influence has helped him secure contracts for friends.
"The city is just consumed in a cloud of gossip and rumors," Jones said in a recent interview. "My name is mentioned all the time, everything from being someone who's going to be dragged off in shackles to someone who's actively working behind the scenes with law enforcement people."
FBI agents searched Jones' home last fall.
Jones said he's not worried but acknowledges that "when lay people see your name in the papers associated with anything that has the word 'FBI' in front of it, automatically it conjures up notions that not only are you a criminal, but you're a seriously dangerous criminal."
Seeking a change
The allegations by Ketner "are all beneath contempt and unworthy of any response except categorical denial," Jones said.
The county commissioners whose offices were searched also deny any wrongdoing.
"I am not concerned. I never solicited nor have I ever accepted a bribe or money in exchange for any decision in the court," Teran said.
"I sleep comfortable at night," Sarinana said.
Whatever happens, some young El Paso political leaders are calling for a sea change in local politics.
"If good people are willing to step in and take leadership roles, then good things will happen," said Susie Byrd, a member of the El Paso City Council. "It won't happen on its own."
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