Hidalgo County pays $165,000 to settle political retaliation lawsuit

Five former Hidalgo County employees who filed a lawsuit against Justice of the Peace Homer Jasso Sr. received a $165,000 settlement last month.

Jasso believed the employees would support former Justice of the Peace Mary Alice Palacios, who planned to run against him in the Democratic Party primary.

“During the week of August 28, 2016, Jasso systematically terminated the employment of all five Plaintiffs because he believed that they would all provide their political support to Palacios in the upcoming election for the office he held, and wanted to keep,” according to the lawsuit.

Hidalgo County, however, said the employees walked off the job.

After the employees filed a lawsuit, Hidalgo County agreed to pay them $165,000, according to settlement agreements and copies of checks released under the Texas Public Information Act. Each of the former employees — Court Coordinator Roberto Leal, Assistant Court Coordinator Arturo Alvarado, Clerk Jaime Gamboa, Clerk Janie Riojas and Clerk Patricia Garza — received $33,000.

Attorneys for the former employees and Hidalgo County didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Problems between Jasso and his employees started in August 2016, when Palacios appointed a campaign treasurer.

Palacios had served as Precinct 4 Place 2 justice of the peace from 1999 to 2011, when a jury convicted her of official oppression. The 13th Court of Appeals reversed her conviction in 2014.

In the meantime, however, Jasso had become the Precinct 4 Place 2 justice of the peace.

“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.”

The layoffs, which left Jasso with just two employees, crippled his courtroom.

In April 2018, when he testified before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct about a sexual harassment complaint, Jasso admitted that he fired the employees for political reasons.

“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, 2018.

Leal also recorded a conversation with Jasso, who openly discussed his disdain for the Palacios family and plans to purge the courtroom of Palacios supporters, according to court records, which include a transcript of the conversation.

Jasso and Hidalgo County settled with the former employees but denied any wrongdoing.

In exchange for $33,000 apiece and a neutral reference, the employees agreed to dismiss the lawsuit and submit resignation letters dated Sept. 2, 2016.

“Releasing Party understands that this is a disputed claim and that Released Parties deny all liability, and that payment of the above stated sums is not an admission of fault or liability by the Released Parties, but rather said payment is made for the purpose of avoiding expenses and the uncertainties of litigation,” according to the settlement agreements.

U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez dismissed the case on Nov. 15.

This article originally appeared in the Friday Dec. 13, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.

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