Sheriff bows to 'external and internal' pressure, resigns

Joel Martinez
FILE PHOTO — Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño talks to the media as sheriff's deputies search a home near the intersection of 34th Street and Mile 5 North where a man was found dead Thursday, July 11, 2013, south of Weslaco. photo by Joel Martinez/

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2014 6:56 pm

Jacob Fischler, Dave Hendricks and Ildefonso Ortiz

EDINBURG — Months of speculation and weeks of intensifying rumors reached a crescendo Friday, as Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño resigned his post and aborted his decorated four-decade career in Texas law enforcement amid ongoing federal prosecutions of eight lawmen in addition to a former commander and Treviño’s youngest son.

The move had been anticipated for weeks, but the fallout from the Hidalgo County’s highest-ranking lawman could still be significant.

“The Sheriff’s Office is a very large department with many individuals and assets, hopefully they have the infrastructure in place to keep operations running smoothly during this transition,” said Victor Rodriguez, the McAllen police chief. “We believe they do. We rely on each other to help maintain the community safety.”

Hidalgo County commissioners will appoint Treviño’s successor Wednesday morning, but in the interim, no single leader will head the department of 700 to 800 employees. Instead, four commanders will collectively run the department Treviño steered for more than nine years.

Between June 16 and Aug. 21, party precinct chairs will nominate candidates to run in the November general election, which was not previously scheduled to include a contest for sheriff. The winner of that contest will take office as soon as possible after the votes are made official.

Treviño did not talk to reporters Friday, but he reached out directly to supporters through his campaign Facebook page, where he reposted his resignation letter and an accompanying note:

“I do this with a very heavy heart but it is in the best interest of the County of Hidalgo and my family,” the post read. “Please take the letter and it's (sic) contents for face value. Rumors run abound but they are rumors until they become fact.”

The last sentence was an apparent reference to speculation the resignation was a prelude to a federal indictment. Charges against Treviño himself have not been filed.

Treviño notified Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia of his resignation with a two-page letter, writing he was retiring in deference to “internal and external pressures placed on me since December 12, 2012” — the day federal agents arrested his son, former Mission police Investigator Jonathan Treviño.
The letter noted a few accomplishments, most notably decreasing the crime rate and increasing community outreach, and Garcia praised his on-the-job record.

“I know that in my dealings with the sheriff, he always demonstrated competence,” he said. “In my mind, he was doing … a very good job for the county, from my standpoint.”
But Treviño wrote that since Dec. 12, 2012, he’d been unable to commit the energy necessary to the job.

“The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, being the 8th-largest sheriff’s office in the state, deserves dedicated and focused attention which I have not been able to give it,” the letter stated.
His attention was too often diverted to the legal battle stemming from a drug-trafficking conspiracy scandal, which involved a corrupt anti-narcotics squad called the Panama Unit and eventually took down nine law enforcement officers — including Jonathan Treviño — and three drug traffickers. Eleven pleaded guilty and one was convicted at trial.

Recently, though, the focus shifted to Sheriff Treviño.
In December, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment against Cmdr. Jose Padilla, who supervised the Special Services Bureau and reported directly to Sheriff Treviño.
Additionally, Padilla also played an integral role in Sheriff Treviño’s re-election campaign.

Treviño told The Monitor that Padilla personally delivered two $5,000 cash donations from reputed Weslaco drug trafficker Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez, and that he rejected the money.

Gonzalez also paid a Weslaco sign-printing business to make signs promoting Sheriff Treviño’s re-election campaign.

Padilla pleaded not guilty to the marijuana trafficking and money laundering charges against him.

In early March, witnesses were called before a federal grand jury to testify about Sheriff Treviño’s re-election campaign, according to a source who requested anonymity because grand jury proceedings aren’t public and witnesses are sworn to secrecy.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas disputed that account, but didn’t return a phone call and email seeking further comment.

Federal agents and Texas Rangers investigating Padilla recently executed a search warrant at the Sheriff’s Office. They removed a computer.

And Tuesday, Chief of Staff Maria “Pat” Medina resigned from the Sheriff’s Office. Medina also served as Sheriff Treviño’s campaign treasurer, and they worked together when he headed the Hidalgo County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force.

Voters re-elected Treviño in November 2012, when he easily defeated Republican challenger Robert Caples.
Former Sheriff Henry Escalon offered his perspective on Treviño's troubles.

“I've made mistakes when I've hired people and people also make mistakes when they elect officials,” Escalon said Friday. “We live in an imperfect world sometimes.” Escalon held the office for 10 years and left in 2004 after Treviño denied him a third full term with a narrow election result in the Democratic primary.

Now the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court must appoint a replacement sheriff. That person will serve until November when the winner of that month's election will take office.

Despite the scandal, Treviño’s supporters remained, even after Friday’s announcement.

“It's a sad day, I'm sure, for him and his family," District Attorney Rene Guerra said. “And it's a sad day for his supporters and all the people who believed in him and who still believe in him.”

“As far as I know, he was not involved in the Panama Unit. Maybe he should have been more involved,” he added. “Sometimes you delegate your duties to other people and sometimes you mislay your trust.”

Treviño worked for Guerra for 16 years as an investigator in the DA’s Office.

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s detractors mostly passed on the opportunity to dance on his political grave.

“It's just sad all the way around,” DA-elect Ricardo Rodriguez said. “I wish him and his family the best.”

During early voting in the recent primary, Treviño appeared in a radio ad blasting the Rodriguez campaign for a direct-mail ad smearing Guerra for his link to the sheriff, his sons and the Panama Unit. He also posted to Facebook he would never forgive Rodriguez for bringing him and his family into the DA’s race.

“I also pray that God forgives Rick Rodriguez for his impetuous act of indiscretion, because I never will,” the post on Feb. 28 said.

Treviño eluded reporters awaiting him outside his office Friday and hasn’t returned phone calls from Monitorreporters since Wednesday. He did not return phone calls seeking comment again on Friday.

Friday’s announcement ended a four decades-long career in law enforcement for Treviño that began with the Edinburg Police Department in the early 1970s.

In 1974, he took a job with the Austin Police Department. Over 13 years there, he worked undercover on narcotics, vice, special crimes and internal investigations units. He also supervised the organized crime, homicide, patrol and narcotics units and was recognized as both APD officer of the year and Austin city employee of the year.

In 1988, he returned to the Rio Grande Valley as an investigator in the District Attorney’s Office. He worked in both the Financial Disruption Task Force and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force.

“He was thorough,” Guerra recalled of Treviño’s time as his employee. “He was instrumental in setting up the HIDTA unit."
He applied for a leave of absence in 1994 to campaign for an appointment to fill the vacancy in the Sheriff’s Office left by Brigido “Brig” Marmolejo’s arrest by federal agents for bribery of a public official, according to a document in Trevño’s county personnel file. A follow-up note seems to indicate he never took that leave.

He did take a leave from the position in 2003 to run for sheriff against Escalon. He won the Democratic primary the next year by fewer than 2,000 votes. He ran unopposed in both the primary and general elections four years later, then cruised to landslide electoral victories in 2012, winning more than 80 percent of the countywide vote in both March and November.
But his political glory was short-lived as Panama Unit arrests began even before his third term did.