Nearly four months after the Mission Police Department fired her for spreading a rumor about former Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas, a policewoman won her appeal today.
Officer Veronica Cedillo sent a private Facebook message claiming that Salinas was “wasted/drunk” when he crashed a truck. Chief Robert Dominguez fired her on June 18.
“The City has established the truth of some of the charges against Officer Cedillo arising out of her May 5, 2018 Facebook Messenger message,” according to the arbitration opinion. “However, her indefinite suspension is excessive under the circumstances of her good-faith exercise of her First Amendment Rights and her otherwise exemplary work record.”
Dominguez couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
The controversy started at 3:32 a.m. on May 5, when police responded to a car crash on the 3000 block of North Glasscock Road.
Officers found Salinas behind the wheel.
Salinas didn’t show any signs of intoxication, according to the sergeant and the patrolman who conducted a cursory investigation of the crash. They didn’t ask him to perform a standard field sobriety test or provide a breath sample.
Minutes after the mayor left, however, the patrolman noticed a beer can nearby. Rumors about the crash rocketed through the department.
Officers started speculating that Salinas had been drinking alcohol.
Cedillo heard about the crash and sent a message to the Anonymous RGV page on Facebook, which is part of a constellation of accounts that shares rumors.
“Well, I just don’t wanna get in trouble, but just so ya’ll know … the current mayor, Beto Salinas was wasted/drunk and crashed inside the city limits … single vehicle accident at about 3am this morning,” Cedillo wrote. “However, it is unknown if he called the Chief of Police directly & had the Sgt. take care of it. So, he was allowed to call someone to go pick him up & was not charged/arrested for DWI. He was already picked up, by the time the wrecker arrived at the scene. The officer only did an accident report … which is totally unfair/wrong!!”
Salinas failed to win a majority of the vote in May and lost a runoff election in June.
Rumors about Salinas drinking and driving circulated for years.
During the arbitration hearing, two officers said they stopped Salinas for traffic infractions and smelled alcohol on him. In an interview, Salinas called them liars and insisted he doesn’t drink.
Cedillo said the rumors about prior incidents convinced her to contact the Anonymous RGV page on Facebook.
A page administrator assured Cedillo she would remain anonymous. It remains unclear how a copy about her message reached the city.
Cedillo based her Facebook message on conversations with fellow officers and didn’t abuse her access to police department records, according to the opinion released today by arbitrator Richard R. Brann of Houston.
“While MPD suffered some harm to its reputation, the public interest in knowing about this subject matter is great. Moreover, it is the right of a citizen-employee to make that happen,” according to the arbitration opinion. “Officer Cedillo’s attempted anonymous allegation was aimed primarily at what she perceived as favoritism towards the Mayor and what she sincerely believed was the need for that favoritism to be investigated by a third party. Accordingly, the Hearing Examiner finds that the public interest and related rights outweigh the harm to MPD.”
The arbitrator also admonished Cedillo for jumping to conclusions.
“Officer Cedillo could have accomplished the same result in the public interest without exaggerating the breadth of her knowledge,” according to the arbitration opinion. “Importantly, it is reasonable to expect an experienced police officer to be more disciplined and precise in making a report, especially one of this importance.”
Mission must pay Cedillo for the time she spent off the job, minus the 10-day suspension.
Attorney David Willis, who represented Cedillo, welcomed the decision.
“Veronica Cedillo is a dedicated and brave member of the Mission Police Department, a true asset to the City of Mission,” Willis said in a statement. “The Mission PD is manned by the finest of men and women and is a well-run, professional organization lead by an upright and compassionate chief, Robert Dominguez. Although we disagreed with the Chief’s decision to indefinitely suspend her employment, and were confident that it would be overturned, the Chief’s dedication to a fair internal affairs investigation process must be recognized.
“On Veronica Cedillo’s behalf, I want to express our sincere gratitude to the hearing examiner for his decision to reinstate her and award her back pay. The arbitration award itself is sound in its legal reasoning and demonstrates a just and deliberate review of the evidence presented in her appeal hearing,” Willis said in the statement. “Veronica Cedillo looks forward to getting back on patrol, doing the job she loves, and serving and protecting the fine people of Mission, Texas.”