Bankruptcy judge threatens to issue bench warrant for Hidalgo County EMS owner

A federal judge threatened to issue a bench warrant for Hidalgo County EMS owner Kenneth B. Ponce on Friday, concerned about his apparent failure to provide information to Ford Motor Credit Company during the bankruptcy process.

Donald L. Turbyfill, an attorney for Ford Motor Credit Company, said he asked Ponce and Hidalgo County EMS to provide him with information about 11 vehicles but hadn’t received any answers.

Turbyfill asked similar questions at hearings throughout March, when he requested information about insurance coverage and vehicle locations.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David R. Jones said he wanted answers too.

“Evidently, I haven’t been able to elevate this high enough on his list of priorities. So I’m giving him a week to get that information. If he doesn’t, I’ll make it plainer: I’m going to issue a bench warrant. And I will have that conversation with Mr. Ponce and, you know, I’ll find a nice place for him to stay until I can get to him. I want to make that very clear,” Jones said on Friday morning, when the court held a hearing in the Hidalgo County EMS bankruptcy case. “I don’t want to do that. It’s the least favorite thing I do. But I’ve been more than patient. I have ignored all sorts of things that, certainly, I can be criticized that I shouldn’t have ignored. I’m going to get his attention one way or the other.”

Hidalgo County EMS — a privately owned ambulance company that responds to emergency calls in Edinburg, Pharr and rural parts of South Texas — filed for bankruptcy in October 2019. The company, though, never filed a restructuring plan.

More than 17 months later, Hidalgo County EMS is scrambling to find someone willing to buy the company and prevent any disruption in ambulance service.

Monday is the deadline for potential buyers to submit bids. An auction is tentatively scheduled for April 2.

“The sale process is ongoing,” said attorney Nathaniel Peter Holzer of Corpus Christi, who represents Hidalgo County EMS. “We’re actively involved with folks that seem to be interested in bidding. And, so, we’re still hopeful about that.”

Ponce, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to bankruptcy fraud on March 17.

He confessed to falsifying documents, concealing assets and siphoning cash from the struggling company.

Ponce agreed to pay restitution. He faces a maximum of five years in federal prison.

Chief Restructuring Officer Richard S. Schmidt, who is steering the company through bankruptcy, fired Ponce after he pleaded guilty, but Ponce remains the owner of Hidalgo County EMS.

Ponce’s problems aren’t limited to the criminal case.

During the hearing Friday morning, Turbyfill said Ford Motor Credit Company needed more information about 11 vehicles.

Seven of the vehicles are owned by Hidalgo County EMS.

“I have received insurance information for only three of those seven vehicles,” Turbyfill said. “I have no location information for any of those seven vehicles that would allow my client to have an opportunity to inspect or examine the vehicles.”

Turbyfill said Ford Motor Credit Company had identified five other vehicles owned by Ponce.

Ponce provided insurance information for one vehicle, which Ponce described as a personal vehicle, Turbyfill said.

“That leaves four vehicles that are titled in Mr. Ponce’s name, which appear to have been, by Mr. Ponce’s representation to me, leased by him to the debtor without Ford Credit’s knowledge,” Turbyfill said, referring to Hidalgo County EMS as the debtor. “I have no idea where these vehicles are.”

Turbyfill said Ford Motor Credit Company wanted to know where, exactly, the vehicles are located and whether or not they are covered by insurance.

“My concern is, your honor, and I have expressed this before, vehicles by their very nature are movable,” Turbyfill said. “I don’t know to what extent these vehicles are in the field, I don’t know to what extent, maybe, some employees may be driving them as their personal vehicles or personal work vehicles.”

Holzer, the attorney for Hidalgo County EMS, said he didn’t know the answers to Turbyfill’s questions.

“As best I can tell, it’s a ‘bandwith’ problem for my client,” Holzer said. “They’re scrambling around to do as much as they can.”

Reached by phone after the hearing, Ponce said the vehicles aren’t missing.

“All the vehicles are accounted for and they’re here,” Ponce said.

During the hearing, Jones said he would allow Ponce a week to provide the information to Ford Motor Credit Company.

“Please convey to him: I am a firm believer in choice. Again, I do not like taking people’s freedom. It’s fundamental to me,” Jones said. “But I’m also not going to put up with it anymore. So he’s got a choice. He can exercise it however he likes.”

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