Terminated employee sues Presidio County

PRESIDIO COUNTY – A new lawsuit filed against Presidio County alleges that political retaliation by the county and its treasurer, Frances Garcia, led to the wrongful termination of Katie Sanchez, the former Director of the Office of Management and Budget who unsuccessfully ran against Garcia for the treasurer seat in March of 2018.

The suit, filed by Sanchez on July 17 of this year, names Presidio County and Garcia “in her individual capacity” as defendants. The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, Pecos Division, and the federal suit, if not settled out of court, will be a trial by jury.

In March 2018, Garcia defeated Sanchez in the Democratic primary election for treasurer. One month later, Garcia requested an executive session at Commissioners Court to discuss Sanchez. However, before the discussion could occur, County Attorney Rod Ponton made clear to Garcia that she did not have the authority to discuss personnel from another office. 

By August 22, 2018, OMB, and thus Sanchez’ job, were abolished by County Commissioners; outgoing Commissioner Loretto Vasquez put the removal of OMB on the agenda, and he, along with current Commissioners Eloy Aranda, Jose Cabezuela and Brenda Bentley, approved the measure.

Judge Cinderela Guevara dissented, and Buddy Knight, who would soon assume Vasquez’ seat, expressed that the move had “the appearance of political retribution.” Prior to the August meeting, there had been no formal discussion among commissioners about abolishing OMB.

Before the commissioners’ voted, County Attorney Rod Ponton read his written opinion that termination of Sanchez could result in an expansive and costly liability, arising from the appearance of political retaliation. He correctly believed that the abolition of OMB, and thus Sanchez’ position, could result in a lawsuit.

Ponton’s letter stated, “Ms. Garcia and others are lobbying the county commissioners to abolish the Office of Management and Budget,” and that a retaliation of that kind would violate a person’s First Amendment rights. Commissioners did not heed his words.

Running for office is protected as free speech under the First Amendment, and Sanchez’ suit indeed alleges a violation of her First Amendment right to be free from retaliation and retribution as a result of seeking political office.

Sanchez herself also spoke up before the vote, stating that Garcia had already created a hostile work environment, claiming that Garcia had yelled at her and Guevara and alleging that Garcia told other county officials she would give Sanchez “four more years of pure hell.”

Commissioners justified the termination as a cost-saving measure for the county in the August meeting. However, the suit notes that “a little more than one month after eliminating the OMB under the pretext of saving money, Commissioners Court approved a 2019 budget that included, among other things, a 3% or greater pay raise to all county employees.”

CPA Doak Painter raised that same concern in his March 2019 audit report on the county’s finances. “I didn’t understand why they said they were getting rid of OMB to save money and then turned around and gave everybody raises.”

Painter refused the opportunity to continue auditing the county’s finances, in part because of the abolition of OMB, which he worried was “moving everything over to the county auditor.”

The OMB was created when the county was struggling financially and had received an adverse opinion during an audit. The office oversaw compliance as well as grant, inventory and risk management.

Since the department’s closure, the county has lost out on grant funds. County Auditor Patty Roach assumed OMB responsibilities like checking and approving payroll, and checking and approving purchases — actions that were once separated between the auditor and OMB to maintain checks and balances.

Painter stated after his most recent audit of the county that he believes Roach is a good auditor, but he remains concerned that a lot of responsibility and knowledge is now concentrated in one office.

Sanchez has hired El Paso attorney John A. Wenke, and the county and Garcia, both represented by the Texas Association of Counties’ risk pool, will have an attorney appointed. The exact representation is still unknown, according to County Attorney Ponton, who added that the county is insured against claims like this, and, if there is liability found, it would be paid out of insurance instead of county revenues.  

Regarding the suit itself, Ponton stated, “Presidio County will not comment on pending litigation.” County Treasurer Garcia could not be reached for comment for this story. 

On the count of First Amendment retaliation, the plaintiff, Sanchez, is asking for the court to award injunctive and equitable relief, back pay and benefits, front pay and benefits, compensatory damages, punitive damages against Garcia only, attorney’s fees, court costs, prejudgement and post-judgement interest accruing at the maximum rate allowed by law, and such other and further relief as the court deems necessary, proper and equitable, general or specific, to which the plaintiff may show herself to be justly entitled. 

Even if liability is not found, Ponton’s original opinion stands. A suit by Ms. Sanchez would “be incredibly costly to the city [sic] regardless of whether she ultimately prevailed,” and “any litigation she might pursue would certainly wind its way through the courts in a protracted and expensive manner. The county’s exposure to liability through the proposal to eliminate the Office of Management & Budget could well be incredibly high.”