EDINBURG — Though he has not been fired yet, Hidalgo County’s district court judges have agreed not to renew the contract of county auditor, Ray Eufracio. His contract expires Feb. 21.
During a meeting of all 11 Hidalgo County district court judges, or their proxies, Wednesday, Judge Noe Gonzalez said he had taken a poll of his fellow judges and he did not have the six votes needed for Eufracio to be reappointed. Eufracio has held the position since February 2005. Under state law Hidalgo County district judges are the authority that hires and fires the county auditor.
“Therefore I am not nominating Mr. Eufracio although he would be the recommendation I would have for the board,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez told the judges he did not as yet have an alternate person to nominate for the position.
“At one point I actually believed that we had the six votes to keep him and I felt comfortable with it,” Gonzalez said. And though he had talked to several potential replacements none indicated they wanted the job, Gonzalez said.
“I did reach out to a few people, even some local lawyers who are accountants, too, and they’re thinking about it,” Gonzalez told the judges. “And there are other people that I talked to, some are not interested at all. They don’t like the politics of it.”
In October, members of the citizen’s watchdog group, Objective Watchers of the Legal System, expressed concern that some judges at that month’s meeting had spoken derisively about the auditor because he had questioned some of their expenditures.
The Progress Times conducted a 13-month review of all district court judges travel expenses through Nov. 31, 2016, and found only one instance where Eufracio’s office tangled with a judge over the office’s refusal to reimburse the full amount requested. In that case the auditor refused to reimburse Judge Rodolfo Delgado of the 93rd District Court the full $234.60 he had requested for a dinner tab from Louie’s Backyard restaurant where Delgado had taken four of his staff members. The auditor did pay for the two-night, three-day retreat in a three bedroom condominium at South Padre Island because the cost of the condo was within the $139 per diem the county provides for employees.
Following Wednesday’s meeting, Delgado said Eufracio’s refusal to fully reimburse him was not the reason he no longer supported the auditor. Delgado said it was “due to other instances that people have advised me that they do have a conflict with him which is an ongoing thing; but, myself, I have no conflict with him.”
When asked who had complained to him Delgado pointed to the room where the board of judges meeting had just concluded which by then was empty.
During the meeting, Judge Gonzalez recommended to the board to offer Eufracio to stay on the job until his placement can be found.
“Under the Texas State Constitution Article 7 Section 17 the auditor can be held over if need be, if we don’t have a replacement for him,” Gonzalez said
If Eufracio declined to stay on the job, Gonzalez said there is another provision in the Texas Constitution that he found a distasteful alternative.
“And I don’t mind saying it publicly, God forbid, you have Governor Greg Abbott appointing another judge to this board from outside of this county to vote with us to help us get a county auditor.”
Gonzalez said Eufracio indicated he would stay on in the position for as long as needed, if offered to be held over.
First Assistant County Auditor Linda Fong said Eufracio was at a conference Wendesday but agreed to text him asking him to contact the Progress Times. However Eufracio had not returned the call by the paper’s press deadline.
Judge Mario E. Ramirez Jr., who is the presiding administrative judge over the entire county court district, recommended advertising nationally for the position prior to hiring Eufracio’s replacement.
“And I’m sure we’re going to be flooded with applicants,” Ramirez said.
The judges voted at the end of the meeting to have legal staff write a memorandum of understanding for Eufracio’s signature that will state he can remain in the position until his replacement is appointed.
Following the meeting Judge Gonzalez said he could not speak for the judges who no longer support Eufracio but offered this explanation as to why he is no longer wanted: “I don’t believe that there would be anybody who could pinpoint one particular reason. I think that when an auditor been around for a long time he stubs his toe one too many times and it gets to a point where more people are critical of him even though the criticism of him is not necessarily concrete it starts to stick. That’s the nature of county auditors around the state. It happens; they’re not always around for a long, long time. And it’s a shame because I really like working with Ray Eufracio. I’m a big supporter of Mr. Eufracio but I recognize that each district judge has a responsibility and each one of us has a vote and I don’t have the votes so I have to work with what I’ve got.”
Judge Israel Ramon of the 430th District Court said he was disappointed with the decision saying he wasn’t aware of the reasons some of his fellow judges decided to oust Eufracio from his job.
“I have nothing but high praise for him. He has always done excellent work,” said Ramon. “He has always done his job and questioned things when they should be questioned and we need somebody that’s independent and will do that, to question something that’s not appropriate.”
Judge Keno Vasquez of the 398th District Court said he would have abstained from voting because he has only been on the job for a month and because he had provided legal counsel to Eufracio’s family when he was an attorney.
Judge Renee Betancourt of the 449th District Court also has only been on the job a month and was not contacted.
OWLS members said in October, Judge Leticia Lopez of the 389th District Court was one of the judges who had voiced criticism of Eufracio. Lopez had not filed any reimbursement requests for herself during the period studied by the newspaper but two of her staff members did attend continuing legal education conferences and submitted reimbursement requests totaling $2,852.00. Lopez left the board meeting soon after its conclusion and did not return a call requesting comment.
Meanwhile, there is a bill working its way through the Texas senate. Introduced by State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, SB 905 would require a member of the county commissioner’s court in Hidalgo and Cameron Counties to be added to the board responsible for appointing the county auditor. In a published report, Eufracio said he opposed the legislation stating it would “disrupt the balance” if commissioners were involved.