Judgement day for Nieto and Hernandez in federal court

PECOS – Carlos Nieto went out with a flourish. Lorenzo Hernandez took his prison sentence in stride.

As each stood before Western District Pecos Division Federal Judge David Counts to be sentenced for their public corruption crimes on Tuesday, Nieto pleaded for leniency based on the public service and advocacy work he’d done for his hometown of Presidio the past 30 years, in testimony by him and his attorney Joe Spencer that lasted almost half an hour.

Hernandez and his attorney presented one character witness.

Spencer acknowledged the 29 “letters of merit” the judge received on his client’s behalf, from “attorneys, engineers, and members of the constabulary even” all extolling Nieto’s “lifetime of service.”

“We’d all left Presidio, but Carlos came back” after earning a Master’s degree in public health from Berkeley,” said Spencer, a formidable El Paso defense attorney who spent summers and holidays with family members in Presidio.

He said the Nieto family has a history of public service and were “pillars of the community showing acts of kindness and compassion” beginning with Nieto’s grandfather, father, and his client.

Spencer then detailed the public projects he credited to Nieto: the solar power initiative at Presidio schools, the back-up battery to prevent power outages to the city, improvements to Lely Airport, construction of the Presidio Activity Center and Library, the fire department and EMS building, the sewage treatment plant, the swimming pool, the baseball field, the rebuilding of the railroad bridge and expanding the vehicle bridge to Mexico; and while president of the Presidio school board, implementing an early college high school, having a robust college scholarship program, hiring Filipino educators to abate a teacher shortage, fostering a rocketry program whose students got an audience with President Obama.

In addition, as chairman of the Presidio County Appraisal District, Nieto worked to reappraise the Shafter silver mine to reap more property tax for Presidio ISD., and worked to restore cattle crossings when the government quit providing a veterinarian for the Presidio port.

When Redford teenager Ezequiel Hernandez was killed by a U.S. Martine on a clandestine drug interdiction mission for the Border Patrol, the sector chief reached out to Nieto to bridge the mistrust between the community and the government, Spencer told the judge.

When Presidio flooded, Nieto opened the schools for displaced residents until the water receded. Every home in Presidio was saved except Mr. Nieto’s, Spencer said. “That’s the type of unselfishness he did.”

This is who Nieto is, “more than this one isolated incident,” Spencer said.

Spencer asked the judge to impose a sentence of probation, but if not, to allow Nieto to attend his daughter’s graduation from Presidio High School on June 1, since he’s been in “exile” in El Paso since his arrest and indictment 20 months ago.

Counts stopped Spencer cold. Nieto has not been in exile but free on bond, the judge said, and he’s been allowed to return to Presidio on several occasions.

A person charged with public bribery should not be allowed to “walk among his victims,” Counts said. “A lot of people love him, but some do not.”

To allow Nieto free return to his community “sends a message to the people they are still being victimized,” Counts said.

When it was time for Nieto to make a statement, he said he stood before the judge as a third-generation American, the son of a World War II veteran, and with a lifetime of advocacy to his community. The city was in dire need of help when he stepped forward.

He told the judge took responsibility for his actions, and “I offer with my heart and with passion and ask for forgiveness.

“I have four kids and as a parent, I haven’t done so well,” he told Counts, saying his work “took me away from home.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Lewis said the FBI’s probe of alleged political corruption in Presidio County came after years of receiving information that something was amiss. When the county went looking for a document management system, agents hatched a scheme to fake a company and bid on that service “to see if it was true,” the federal prosecutor told the judge. Nieto and Hernandez took the bait.

While Lewis didn’t dispute the testimony of Nieto and Spencer, he told the judge what a recorded conversation of Nieto telling one of the undercover FBI agents picked up: “I’m tired of working for free.”

And work he did, Lewis said. When Hernandez and fellow Presidio Commissioner Eloy Aranda were absent from the April 25, 2017 county meeting in Presidio when the document management contract was on the agenda, Nieto had the matter postponed when he saw he didn’t have the votes.

When commissioners met on May 9, 2017 in Marfa with all commissioners and the county judge present, the contract was adopted in a 4-1 vote.

Counts sentenced Nieto to two years and five month in prison, a fine of $10,000, and three years of probation after his release. He gave Nieto 60 days to turn himself and said he was sorry he wouldn’t be able to see his daughter graduate from high school.

He took into account Nieto’s desire to serve his sentence at La Tuna, a low-security federal correctional institution at Anthony, New Mexico, about 12 miles from El Paso.

While Nieto was the first case on the court docket Tuesday morning, Hernandez had to wait while the judge took a dozen guilty pleas from immigrants from Mexico and Central America on illegal entry and immigrant and drug smuggling charges. By late morning, Hernandez and his attorney, David Guinn of Lubbock, were summoned to the podium.

Guinn called Presidio County rancher and former county commissioner Jim White III to the stand who testified Hernandez was “still a good man.”

He added that there still is corruption in Presidio County.

White testified he was surprised when Hernandez was charged with bribery, and after he pleaded guilty several months ago, he had a chance meeting with the former commissioner and former Presidio mayor. “I told him to fess up, and that you made a mistake.”

Guinn said his client is “ready to take his medicine,” and like Nieto, Hernandez touched many lives as a teacher and coach and public servant.

The defense attorney said his client told his children, “I was greedy and stupid” but to take his punishment like a man.

Hernandez then addressed the judge to say he apologized to his “family, the people of Presidio, and the government. I throw myself at the mercy of the court.”

Counts placed Hernandez in prison for two years, assessed a fine of $10,000, and three years of probation after his release. He also gave Hernandez 60 days to turn himself in to federal authorities, and took into account the defendant’s wish to serve his sentence at the Big Spring federal correctional institute.