Five former employees filed a lawsuit against Hidalgo County Justice of the Peace Homer Jasso Sr. last month, claiming the judge fired them during a bout of political paranoia.
Jasso abruptly fired all five employees in August 2016, when rumors circulated that former Justice of the Peace Mary Alice Palacios would run against him.
Before he took the bench, the five employees — Court Coordinator Roberto Leal, Assistant Court Coordinator Arturo Alvarado, Clerk Jaime Gamboa, Clerk Janie Riojas and Clerk Patricia Garza — worked for Palacios.
Apparently concerned they would support her in next Democratic Party primary, Jasso purged the courtroom of potential Palacios loyalists.
“The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of speech, which includes the right to engage in political activities, to campaign and run for public office, and to associate with an individual exercising that individual’s right to freedom of speech,” according to the federal lawsuit, which the former employees filed against Jasso and Hidalgo County on Aug. 21. “When each of these plaintiffs was fired by the defendants, the law was clear that terminating a public employee because the employer believes that individual will support another individual running for elected office violated a clearly-established constitutional right.”
With the lawsuit pending, Edinburg-based attorney M. Sameer Ahmed, who represents the former employees, declined to comment. Court records don’t list an attorney for Jasso, who couldn’t be reached for comment.
Hidalgo County politicians routinely hire supporters as top aides, but federal law prohibits making low-level personnel decisions based purely on politics.
Claims about political retaliation, though, remain common.
A former maintenance worker filed a lawsuit against former Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar in October 2015, claiming Precinct 1 terminated him for political reasons. Six other employees lodged similar claims against Cuellar.
Less than a year later, seven former members of the Hidalgo County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force filed a lawsuit against District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, claiming they were fired for political reasons.
Ahmed is also litigating the task force case.
Tension between Jasso and his staff started in August 2016, when rumors circulated that Palacios would run against him.
Palacios presided over the court from 1999 to 2011, when a jury convicted her of official oppression.
While the case wound through the court system, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia appointed Jasso to handle her cases. Jasso ran for re-election and won a four-year term in 2014.
The 13th Court of Appeals reversed Palacios’ conviction the same year, concluding “the evidence is insufficient to support the jury’s finding.”
With her conviction overturned, the possibility that Palacios would challenge him in the March 2018 Democratic Party primary apparently spooked Jasso.
“Immediately following that announcement, Jasso became incensed in the presence of Leal and Janie Riojas,” according to the lawsuit. “He then called Leal into his chambers and spent several minutes ranting in anger over Palacios’ announcement and over his employees who once worked for her.”
Over the next few weeks, Jasso openly discussed firing potential Palacios supporters, according to the lawsuit.
“One morning in the last full week of August, he came to work in a very foul mood and called Leal into his office to talk,” according to the lawsuit. “He told Leal that Leal, Riojas, Alvarado, Gamboa and Garza were all to be gone as of the coming Monday, August 29, 2016.”
After talking with Leal about the situation, Jasso changed their last day to Sept. 2.
Several employees took sick or vacation time during their final days. Hidalgo County sent them letters dated Sept. 1, accusing the employees of “walking off the job.”
“We consider this a resignation without notice,” the letters read. “The leave that you obtained for the remainder of the week was improperly approved/secured and it is null and void.”
The layoffs temporarily crippled the courtroom, leaving Jasso with just two employees.
Jasso mentioned the layoffs on April 5, 2018, when he testified before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct about a sexual harassment complaint and allegations he mishandled a small-claims case.
“During his appearance before the Commission, the judge testified he terminated the five employees for ‘political reasons,’ after they had expressed support for his opponent in the upcoming election,” according to a public reprimand issued on April 18.
Despite the political machinations, Palacios didn’t actually run against Jasso. He narrowly won the Democratic Party primary and doesn’t face a Republican challenger in November.