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20140212 UTPA Candidate Forum DA Rene-GuerraRicardo Rodriguez believes after more than 30 years it’s time for new blood in the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office. Incumbent Rene Guerra said he was ready to step down until Rodriguez stepped up for the office.

Guerra said if someone he deemed a good candidate had decided to run, he would not be in the running.

“He (Rodriguez) helped change my mind. His family helped change my mind,” Guerra said, pointing out Rodriguez is related to the Palacios family, which is involved in county and Edinburg politics.

Rodriguez said the six and a half years he served as 92nd District Court Judge showed him ways the district attorney’s office could be improved.

“It’s nothing against Mr. Guerra. It was just things I want to do differently in the district attorney’s office,” Rodriguez said. “When I say district attorney’s office, I’m not talking about the prosecutors; I’m not talking about the secretaries; I’m talking about the person who’s in charge in the DA’s office, the top person that’s in charge.”

One of the main issues Rodriguez has pointed to in his campaign is political corruption. There should be a public integrity unit based in the district attorney’s office, he said, pointing to the federal case on the county’s Panama Unit and another at Progreso Independent School District.

20140212 UTPA Candidate Forum DA Ricardo-RodriguezGuerra said that’s not the system in place. Someone first must submit a sworn complaint, he said. The district attorney’s first step is to refer the complaint to a Texas Ranger, the FBI or a local law enforcement agency to investigate. If that agency comes back and says there’s nothing criminally at issue, the district attorney can call a grand jury.

“A grand jury can compel people to testify where a police officer can be told to go up a tree,” Guerra said. “In my opinion, that’s how the system ought to work. If someone wants to differ, have them give me a better design.”

Every move he makes is seen as political, Guerra said. Flashing back a couple of years ago when the Edinburg CISD superintendent post was open, Guerra said he believes the standard was changed to require a doctorate so that his wife, then an assistant superintendent, couldn’t be considered.

“Now let me ask you a question. If I send one of my investigators prying into the Edinburg school district or the City of Edinburg on their contracts, is that political?” he asked. “What is somebody going to say: Why is the district attorney picking on us?

“The sheriff faces the same thing. He’s an elected official. The police department is not, the rangers are not, the FBI is not, the DEA is not, the ATF is not, the TABC is not, DPS patrol officers and investigators are not elected, so when they conduct investigations, nobody can turn around and say that was a political vendetta because they didn’t help the elected official the last time he ran for office.”

In debates, Guerra has pointed to the cost of funding such a unit, estimating four experienced attorneys would cost the county $100,000 each and investigators would cost another $60,000. The total cost easily tops $500,000, he said.

Rodriguez said cost shouldn’t be an issue. The division could share work with other attorneys in the department while being ready to investigate a complaint. Plus, the division didn’t have to be formed overnight.

“We had 30 years to work something out,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t even have a grant writer to try and get as much money as we can.”

Besides, Rodriguez said, there are other ways the county can save money. Cases are taking too long to come before the courts, he said. That means people are in jail longer, at a cost of about $50 per person, he said.

Rodriguez said he wasn’t talking about violent cases like murder and aggravated assault. He said there are people accused of state jail felonies (mostly low-level drug and property crimes) who are first-time offenders who can’t afford to bond out of jail.

“The talk is always jail populations, that it’s overcrowded, and we talk about it and talk about it and talk about it, and we never do anything about it,” Rodriguez said. “Before we talk about building a new jail, why don’t we sit down and talk about how we can streamline these cases to get them into court faster.

“We do our job as prosecutors, but we save the taxpayers money.”

As early voting kicked off this week, the competition for the district attorney’s seat was one of the most talked about races. Tempers sparked in January when La Joya city leaders found out their polling location had been removed by the county. They petitioned to have it returned and succeeded, but not before accusing the county of removing it because city leaders there were supporting Rodriguez.

Guerra has a post on his site listing endorsements by city officials from around the western portion of the county—all but La Joya.

Rodriguez said Guerra’s campaign believes he’s strong in the west, but Rodriguez said he’s working a grassroots effort in the area. The removal of the polling place was politics, he said. The people there are tired of politics.

“Let anybody support who they want to support,” Rodriguez said. “We’re offering the citizens an option for change.”

Meanwhile, Guerra said he never knew the polling place was removed from La Joya.

“I couldn’t care less how many people in La Joya vote for my opponent,” Guerra said. “I don’t know who’s going to vote for who, but when you have thousands and thousands of dollars being spent, people are going to be doing desperate things to get that person elected. I’m not spending thousands of dollars to get elected. I don’t need to.

“This is my 10th rodeo. I lost the first one, but I won the other nine.”

Guerra first found a passion for prosecution in 1977 when he joined the district attorney’s office on the condition that he be a felony prosecutor “because that was where the action was.” He was appointed acting district attorney in 1979 when his boss got into trouble with the law. But after less than a year, he said he resigned under pressure from the Board of Judges after he challenged a case.

He said he turned around and ran for judge in 1980 against their “anointed” candidate and lost. It was then he ran for district attorney and won. During the campaign, people found out he wasn’t paid a district attorney’s salary when he served as acting head of the office.

“ I think a lot of people started liking the fact that I was not going to take it laying down,” Guerra said.

From his perch as district attorney, Guerra said he saw Rodriguez’s run for the office coming when the young attorney first ran to be a city commissioner the Edinburg.

“I knew the day of reckoning was coming,” Guerra said.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez said he found he enjoyed working criminal cases as an attorney. He served as city commissioner in Edinburg before making a run for the 92nd District Court. He took office in 2008.

Rodriguez said he learned a lot on the bench and the idea of prosecution grew on him. He particularly enjoyed governing over criminal cases.

“Mr. Guerra had been saying he wasn’t going to run anymore, and he’d been saying that for a long time, so I said this is the perfect opportunity to continue serving but doing more with the position,” Rodriguez said.

He pointed to his time overseeing the drug court, which gave first-time felony offenders of nonviolent crimes a chance to have their charges dismissed.

“It’s time to have somebody more involved with the younger individuals, those who have made mistake but still have an opportunity to fix their mistakes.”

Early voting continues through Feb. 28. Election Day is March 4.

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