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Arraignment and detention hearing for Presidio officials is today in Pecos

July 6th, 2017 under Top Stories

 

By NICK WINCHESTER

nick@bigbendnow.com

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Carlos Nieto and Lorenzo Hernandez will appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge David Fannin at 9:30am today for their arraignment and bond detention hearing in Pecos federal court, according to court records.

FBI agents arrested Nieto and Hernandez on federal bribery, fraud and deprivation of honest services charges in Midland this past Thursday, June 28. They are alleged to have abused their positions as public officials, defrauding the citizens of Presidio County by allegedly taking kickbacks to ensure a county contract.

Nieto is a longtime Presidio school board member and past president and the current special projects coordinator for the city of Presidio. Hernandez is a former Presidio mayor and current Presidio County commissioner.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the men face possible sentences of up to 20 years. Both were arrested in the Midland-Odessa area last Thursday afternoon. Nieto was picked up at the Odessa Social Security office, while Hernandez was arrested in the parking lot of Garlic Press in Midland, according to media partners CBS 7.

They have been jailed without bond since their initial appearance in Midland federal court last Friday.

Numerous FBI agents were at the Presidio County courthouse last Friday as the investigation evolved, visiting behind close doors with Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara.

The FBI also executed a search warrant on Nieto’s Presidio home on Friday, according to CBS 7.

News of the arrest of Nieto and Hernandez took Presidio city and Presidio County officials by surprise.

In a public statement, Presidio Mayor John Ferguson said, “The arrest of Carlos Nieto, Special Projects Coordinator, and Lorenzo Hernandez, Presidio County Commissioner and former Presidio mayor, came as a great surprise to me. I have worked with both of them on a wide variety of projects and initiatives that I feel have been and continue to be helpful to Presidio and the county.”

Ferguson continued, “I would be saddened if the allegations against them were to be true, but fortunately in the United States an individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

“As mayor of our wonderful town, I feel it is very important to communicate that any of these alleged activities do not reflect what is going on at the City of Presidio. We have an outstanding city administrator who directs an energized city team, “covering all the bases” in town as best we can. We’re far from perfect, but we are giving it our best every day. As far as I am concerned, we at the city are an open book, and I would welcome anybody to come in and put us to the test at any time.

“Thursday’s events were stressful. Nevertheless, they in no way diminish my optimism for the direction Presidio is headed. People who will want to take advantage of the coming opportunities, pay attention. For those who insist that this is all a big lie and that there is rampant corruption at city hall, please take an opportunity to join our Planning & Zoning Commission, or our Parks Advisory Board. Get involved and be a part of making Presidio a better place. It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and criticize; it’s another thing to become a part of a team and learn how to work together towards a common goal,” Ferguson said.

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara issued this statement: “It is very disheartening and disturbing, especially because in the past three years since I’ve held this office, this court has worked hard to pass policies and implement procedures to discourage and deter this type of malfeasance. Now Presidio County is faced with the challenge to create a more stringent climate of accountability with more robust management systems.  We will have to work long and hard to promote public confidence in county government.  More importantly, we will have to unite and be truly vested in each other’s success, which extends far beyond just business.  We must not let each other, or the public down.”

Indicted last week by a Midland federal grand jury, the panel asserted that a particular company would be awarded a county contract for a document management system and that Nieto and Hernandez used their influence for the county to award the bid to that firm, S&K Computer Works of Ohio.

The indictment further alleges that Hernandez and Nieto solicited and received $19,800 and $8,300, respectively, for their efforts. On May 9, 2017, Hernandez voted to award the contract to that particular company.

Guevara added that ironically, during that May 9 commissioners’ court meeting, she brought before the court a “Code of Ethics” she felt was necessary to adopt, which commissioners’ court did.

She said she has worked at county for the past 28 years, previously as a justice of the peace, and there has never been a formal document to outline principles, values, and guided behaviors to enable ethical decision making for the organization.

The first paragraph in the preamble states, “Presidio County is committed to the highest standards of conduct by and among officials in the performance of their public duties.  Individual and collective adherence to high ethical standards by public officials is central to the maintenance of public trust and confidence in government. The ethical county official should promote decisions which only benefit the public interest.”

The vote was 3-1 to award the contract to S&K with Commissioner Brenda Silva Bentley of Marfa the no vote.

According to documents obtained by the Sentinel, the contract is worth $300,000 over a five-year period.

In a statement to the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel and Presidio International this week, Bentley said, “I have only been in office since January 2017, and when S & K Computer Works came up on the agenda for the May 9th, 2017 meeting, something told me there were red flags.

“The bid scoring sheets did not make sense to me, as the company was inexperienced and gave zero references or background information. I did a little digging and found that there wasn’t any information about Matthew Brown or S&K Computer Works, even on the internet. Their website was only a webpage and their address was not verifiable.  I spoke with someone at the number they listed and was only met with vague and evasive answers.”

Bentley added, “I took it upon myself and called the Westlake, Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the City of Westlake Business Planning Office.  Neither could find records of this business ever being registered in their city.  Brewster and Jeff Davis counties both verified that S&K Computer Works had not solicited them for document imaging.  Why was this company out of Ohio only pitching to us?  It just didn’t add up! I disclosed most of this information publicly at the meeting and vehemently objected to awarding them the bid that day.  However, I was met with opposition and the group voted in favor of the award upon certain contingencies being met by S&K Computer Works.  In the end, the vote was 4 in favor, and me voting against,” according to Bentley’s statement.

As to the arrest of Nieto and Hernandez, Bentley said, “When I heard of the arrests of Carlos Nieto and Lorenzo Hernandez, I was taken aback.  I just could not wrap my head around it.  I’m still somewhat in disbelief.  It’s hard to believe that people who have advocated so passionately for their communities could be involved in such illicit activities.”

The Sentinel/ International could not reach a representative of S&K Computer Works for comment. A call to the company found that the telephone number no longer works. The website consists of two pages of basic information and is privately registered.

During the May 9 meeting in which the county’s document services contract was voted on, Justice of the Peace David Beebe spoke up to shed light on a alleged conflict of interest rumor he had heard. The rumors, Beebe said, “were that [S&K Computer Works] has some connection to somebody who is making decisions on behalf of this county.”

Beebe said, “If that’s true, I think this is the last possible time for somebody who may have a direct or indirect conflict of interest to forward.”

To this, Commissioner Hernandez said he had also heard rumors that he was related to guys in the company. Beebe confirmed that that was what he had heard and said he was not accusing Hernandez.

“How can you even think that I am related to this person,” Hernandez said, “I’m as Mexican as they come and these guys are white.”

Hernandez added that the rumors were “laughable” and Beebe conceded, saying “that was all you needed to say.”

Following this, the vote was made.

On April 27, during a county commissioners court meeting in Presidio, Nieto described the lack of access to documents for south county residents, including birth and death certificates, and legal documents, as “shameful” and “[bordering] on being criminal.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the vote to approve the contract to S&K Computer Works passed 4-1. The vote passed 3-1. The Big Bend Sentinel apologises for this mistake. 

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