'Waste of time': Commissioners spar over misappropriation complaint

Vicky Camarillo
Corpus Christi Caller Times

Nueces County’s public works director and his attorney argued in a contentious and hours-long public meeting Thursday against an accusation that he misappropriated county resources.

After County Judge Barbara Canales turned over information about the complaint against Juan Pimentel, the Texas Rangers are investigating whether he misused county funds, personnel and materials to reconstruct his father’s driveway.

During Thursday’s meeting, Pimentel denied that he’d done anything improper or asked anyone to do work specifically on his father’s property.

The county commissioners were meant to discuss the matter with Pimentel in executive session during their regular meeting on Wednesday. But Pimentel asked to hold the meeting in public.

Nueces County public works director Juan Pimentel appears at the county courthouse on Nov. 14, 2018.

Pimentel was not given an official reprimand, and the purpose of the meeting was not to determine whether he should be fired, Canales said. The complaint went before the commissioners’ court because Pimentel is a department head.

The meeting frequently became heated, with Pimentel’s attorney, Chris Gale, repeatedly raising his voice. He said the county commissioners could have investigated the issue before scheduling it for executive session, which Canales disputed, and that the commissioners’ procedure was unclear.

Although they approved an independent investigation, Canales and Precinct 4 commissioner Brent Chesney proceeded to question Pimentel and one of his staffers and ask for relevant records.

What was the complaint?

Canales said a county employee gave her a photo showing that work appeared to have been done on one house — where Pimentel’s father lives — in a private subdivision in northwest Nueces County, but not on other houses in that neighborhood. She also said it was a “red flag” that there was no record of a work order directing the project in that subdivision.

Pimentel and Jerry Garcia, the lead foreman on the project, said the department does not file work orders in advance of projects. It usually only keeps activity logs that are written after a job is completed.

Gale said the public works department worked on culverts on public roads in a subdivision where Pimentel’s father “happened” to live. He said the staff has frequently done work in that area because it has poor drainage and is prone to flooding. 

He initially said no work was done on private property, including a driveway. But later, he said county workers destroyed Pimentel’s father’s asphalt driveway and replaced it with inferior limestone. A worker driving a Gradall machine also damaged the concrete mailbox on the property, and it was replaced with a temporary mailbox.

Incidents like that one are documented by the foreman and reported to human resources, Pimentel said. The worker responsible for the incident is tested for drugs and may be given a reprimand.

Pimentel said the department has to report every expense and man hour to the state, and the department’s quarterly report — which is presented to the commissioners — shows the work done in the subdivision in question.

Asked by Chesney whether he authorized any work at his father’s house that he wouldn’t have done at other properties, Pimentel said, “We did everything (that) we would do for any constituent out there. Nothing different.”

The Nueces County Courthouse is pictured on Oct. 20, 2021.

How did the commissioners respond?

Initially, the commissioners voted unanimously — minus Precinct 2 commissioner Joe A. Gonzalez, who joined the meeting later — to greenlight an independent investigation into the incident, which would be unrelated to the Texas Rangers investigation. 

But after Chesney and Canales questioned Garcia, Chesney and Precinct 1 commissioner Roberto Hernandez said there were no signs of wrongdoing.

Chesney then made a motion to reconsider the independent investigation. Only Canales voted against the proposal.

After a series of questions from Canales, Pimentel invoked the Fifth Amendment. Later, Gale said it was not “true” and that Pimentel had only taken the Fifth in “haste” because he was “tired of the constant attack.”

Chesney made a motion to end the process, with the option to reopen it if more information was brought to the commissioners. Gonzalez seconded the motion, but Canales — who later said she did not hear the second — adjourned the meeting.

Commissioners and others attending the meeting contested whether Canales could adjourn while a motion and a second were on the floor. Canales briefly left the room.

Because there was a quorum and unfinished business in the meeting, county attorney Jenny Dorsey said the commissioners could proceed with the senior commissioner, Gonzalez, as the presiding officer. 

Precinct 3 commissioner John Marez had left the meeting because he had other obligations and rejoined the meeting on Zoom. He said he was disappointed that the commissioners had overturned the previous vote after he left and that questioning should not have continued after the commissioners agreed to an independent investigation.

“I feel strongly with what I have heard and feel confident in people who have testified and provided information,” he said. “But aside from that, I think that this has been a waste of time and really has gone against what the spirit of that motion was earlier this morning.

“I think that we could’ve got all this information done in a much easier and efficient manner had we allowed it just to be done as an investigation.”

Canales returned to the meeting, and the court unanimously approved Chesney’s motion that the court found no wrongdoing but would reconsider the issue if it received more information.

Canales said she did not get all the information she wanted, but she has “the right to go seek that information through a variety of resources.”

She said she agreed with Gale that the court needs a framework to address future complaints “so that we understand each other — you as counselor, we as court — how we will conduct ourselves and what you can do, what you can’t do.”

“We didn’t have that because we didn’t expect this,” she said. “We don’t always have these types of situations. But I personally believe that when something serious comes up, you better believe that I’m going to be on top of getting to the bottom of it.”

Vicky Camarillo covers Nueces County government and enterprise topics in Nueces County and Texas. See our subscription options and special offers at Caller.com/subscribe.

More:Supporters of sea turtle program chafe at response from Padre Island superintendent

More:Nueces County redistricting process gets bumpy with tiff over perceived gerrymandering