Update, 4:30 p.m., May 4: After hours of discussion at Thursday’s Financial Oversight and Audit Committee meeting, where new allegations of possible misuse of fuel cards by city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez and former city Rep. Claudia Rodriguez came up, the committee voted to accept the audit findings and send the report to the full City Council. The committee also voted to develop a list of recommendations for corrective actions and policies regarding both procurement cards and fuel cards to refer to city staff and the city’s legal department before presenting them to City Council for consideration. The committee also entertained a motion for the City Council to consider launching a further investigation under the portion of the City Charter that determines elections and qualifications for members of the City Council, but the motion was scrapped. The City Council as a whole would have to vote whether to begin such an investigation, according to city legal staff.

Update 6:40 p.m., May 5: City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez said she would pay the city $6,700 to cover the cost of the gas used for her vehicles in 2022.

City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez’s and former city Rep. Claudia Rodriguez’s use of their city-issued gas cards was “excessive” for calendar year 2022 – in possible violation of city policy – an internal city audit has found.

The observation of excessive purchases by the two elected officials warranted a recommendation in the audit to cancel the use of city fuel cards for the mayor and City Council, according to the internal audit posted as backup for a Financial Oversight and Audit Committee meeting set for 1 p.m. Thursday at City Hall.

The audit also found deficiencies in the city’s fuel card policy related to elected officials, which the head of the city’s Streets and Maintenance Department that issues the fuel cards agreed with in response to the auditor’s observations.

“Based on the amount of fuel being purchased and the frequency of fuel purchases on consecutive days in Calendar year 2022, the data indicates two or more vehicles are being fueled,” the audit states of Hernandez’s fuel card, which is against city policy. “The amount of fuel purchased by District 3 for calendar year 2022 appears to be excessive.”

Hernandez said she has three vehicles she uses depending on what work she has to do on a given day.

“I’m concerned about this interpretation of excessiveness because I use my vehicles for work related matters and I’m in my district all day,” Hernadez said in a phone interview with El Paso Matters.

The audit finding mirrored the same conclusion for Rodriguez’s use of the fuel card, although Hernandez’s use was the highest among the nine elected officials for the year the audit was conducted.

Rodriguez said she is concerned she is being targeted by current members of council and does not think she misused the gas card based on what she was told when it was issued to her.

“Why is this coming up now? If there’s something that that council wants to do moving forward, that’s certainly their right, and that is their obligation to do so,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview with El Paso Matters, adding she didn’t do anything wrong. “We were given the gas cards and we were told you can use them at any Alon (gas station) and that was it.”

Documents show Hernandez had 112 transactions costing taxpayers about $6,700 and had multiple instances of back-to-back days of buying gas. Rodriguez had 86 transactions costing taxpayers about $5,300 and used her card to fill up on Jan. 2 – her last day in office.

Misusing government property, services, personnel or any other thing of value belonging to the government in the custody or possession by virtue of the public servant’s office or employment is a violation of state law. Potential violations could be punishable by misdemeanor or felony charges, according to the statute.

In the audit, Chief Internal Auditor Edmundo Calderon is recommending that the city eliminate the use of fuel cards and establish a vehicle allowance for elected officials similar to what is provided to executive staff.

The financial oversight committee will hear the results of the audit Thursday before any recommendations are considered by the full City Council. The committee is made up of four members of the City Council, the city manager and chief internal auditor.

Current members are city Rep. Brian Kennedy, who is the committee chair, and city Reps. Alexsandra Annello, Art Fierro and Joe Molinar. The financial committee, known as FOAC,  maintains legislative oversight over the internal audit function, including helping decide which audits will be conducted and reviewing audit reports to determine what corrective actions, if any, need to be made.

A proposition on the May 6 City Charter amendment election asks voters if there needs to be a change to the reporting structure of the internal auditor.

The audit was part of the 2022-2023 Annual Audit Plan that included a review of procurement card, or P-card purchases, and travel expenses for elected officials and city management staff.

Spending trends for Hernandez, Rodriguez

Hernandez’s spending with the city-issued card included several instances of days where the card would be used to fill-up a tank with about 17 gallons of gas, followed by another 17-gallon fill up the following day. This occurred on eight different months, according to the audit.

City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez gives City Council a presentation about the city manager search Tuesday March 28, 2023. (Elida S. Perez/El Paso Matters)

In March, there were back-to-back fill ups of 17 gallons each on March 10 and 11 although the city representative was absent from the March 14, 15 and 28 City Council meetings after giving birth. Hernandez appeared virtually for the March 29 meeting, according to City Council meeting minutes.

Hernandez said that while she attended meetings virtually she was still working in the district after the birth of her child.

“I was with my child but I was still working with my constituents,” Hernandez said. “I was able to attend virtually at (some) city council meetings, but I didn’t stop with community meetings. I didn’t stop the neighborhood association meetings in my district and in fact I even brought my newborn to some meetings.”

There were seven fill-ups in April, but no days where the card was used on consecutive days.

In August, Hernandez had three back-to-back fill-up days. In September, there were three days of consecutive fill ups; and in October, there were five instances where the gas card was used on consecutive days.

Hernandez said when they are given their fuel cards there is no policy that says members of council cannot use their personal vehicles or any policy that defines what is considered excessive.

“There’s no policy that says that you can’t have more than four or five vehicles, there’s no policy that says that you can’t use premium or unleaded gas,” Hernandez said. “There’s no policy that says that members of council who work too much are capped at a certain amount.”

She said there’s a lack of a policy that addresses members of council.

“This whole audit is under an opinion versus identifying explicitly what the violation is, if any,” she said.

Hernandez said if anything, her use of the gas card is reflective of the work she was doing for constituents.

“What this report tells me is that I’m working for my district and I am prioritizing my district and I’m urging the mayor and council to do the same,” Hernandez said.

Rodriguez, who launched her reelection bid in September and lost her seat in the December runoff, was using her gas card every few days, according to the audit findings.

From January through May, the audit shows Rodriguez was filling up after about three or four days with purchases of both supreme unleaded and regular unleaded gas.

Rodriguez said she admits her vehicle is a gas guzzler, but said she was never told she could not use the city-issued card for a specific type of gas. She said one of her vehicles uses supreme, while an alternate vehicle uses regular unleaded gas. The times there were purchases of both types of fuel, she said one of her cars was being repaired, or she had to use a rental.

“That’s the car that I use for work. That was the car that I used to go to my meetings and to any city events and it was a daily thing that I was using my vehicle for that,” Rodriguez said.

In September, records show she had eight gas purchases about four days apart; nine purchases about six days apart in October; and 10 purchases less than three days apart in November.

The audit also found Rodriguez used her gas card in Van Horn, Texas, in May and August without being able to determine a reason for the expenditures. She also had fuel purchases on consecutive days on at least three occasions.

In November, Rodriguez used her gas card multiple times a day in at least three days: Nov. 7 – a day before the midterm election, Nov. 13 and Nov. 28.

Rodriguez said she did not know why there were charges in Van Horn although she said she was the only one using the gas card. During the November time frame she said she was doing a lot of work in her district despite running for reelection.

“I didn’t stop working. I still went to City Council, I still had meetings with my constituents. I did a lot of work,” Rodriguez said.

In December there were six purchases about six days apart.

Rodriguez’s final fill-up was on her last day in office.

“Based on the amount of fuel being purchased, the frequency of fuel purchases on consecutive/same days, and the type of fuel purchased in Calendar Year 2022; the data indicates 2 or more vehicles are being fueled,” the audit findings state.

Annello had 60 transactions totaling about $2,400; Molinar had 14 transactions totaling about $750; city Rep. Isabel Salcido had 30 transactions totaling about $1,500; city Rep. Henry Rivera and former city Rep. Peter Svarzbein did not have any transactions; and former city Rep. Cissy Lizarraga had 21 transactions totaling about $1,080. Mayor Oscar Leeser had 19 transactions totaling about $1,300.

Questions of policy

During the April 25 City Council meeting, city representatives raised questions about the fuel card policy. Fierro placed two items on the meeting agenda to discuss concerns about the usage of fuel cards and what rules were in place.

Art Fierro, District 6 City Council representative, attends a meeting on March 13. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Fierro said he wanted to discuss the issue during the meeting because it took city staff 90 days to give him information about his district’s discretionary spending balances and prior spending by Rodriguez.

Fierro, Kennedy and Canales were sworn into office Jan. 3 after winning their races in the December runoff election.

Leeser, during the April 25 meeting, said the limit on fuel cards for elected officials was $100 per month when he served his first term as mayor from 2013 to 2017. Leeser questioned when the policy was changed and who authorized the change, but city staff at the time did not have the information available.

El Paso Matters requested through the Texas Public Information Act the city’s original and revised fuel card policies for elected officials from 2017 to present. The city produced five copies of procurement card policies from 2016 through 2022 and one fuel card policy.

The city’s fuel card policy states it was issued in July 2021 and revised in June 2022 and went into effect July 2022. The revision to the policy was initialed by an unidentifiable city employee on June 21, 2022. The initials are not legible. The revised policy also does not show what changes were made at the time.

The fuel policy provided did not state a monthly limit on gas purchases, but has rules for use.

That includes the stipulation that “each fuel card will be assigned to a specific city vehicle and city employee and is to be used exclusively for that vehicle by that employee for official city business.”

“A fuel card is not to be used for personal vehicles, other city vehicles for which the card is not assigned, or rental vehicles,” according to the policy.

The internal audit found deficiencies in the policy related to elected officials, such as not addressing the fuel card use for council members or guidance for their privately used vehicles. The policy also encourages, but does not require, fuel purchase logs, according to the audit.

“The Streets and Maintenance Department will revisit the City of El Paso’s Commercial Fuel Policy and Use Procedures and make revisions to introduce the requirement that all card users maintain fuel logs (specific to each vehicle) and enter correct information for vehicle mileage and other relevant data at every refueling occasion,” said Richard Bristol, director of the city’s Streets and Maintenance in response to the audit.

Bristol said he also agrees that the fuel card program should be suspended from use for elected officials in his response on the audit findings and supports the recommendation to implement a vehicle allowance similar to that currently in place for city executives.

He also said the vehicle allowance would help prevent issues identified in the findings related to Hernandez and Rodriguez from repeating.

Those issued a fuel card also have to sign a statement of understanding with further guidance, including that not complying with the rules could result in discipline and possible termination of employment and revocation of card privileges, among other sanctions.

The required statements could not be located for every elected official for calendar year 2022, according to the audit. In April 2023, new cards began to be distributed by the Streets and Maintenance Department and the department is attempting to get the signed statements.

Several elected officials’ administrative staff signed the statements instead of the city representatives, according to documents obtained by El Paso Matters.

The documents show that although the fuel card policy went into effect in July 2022, the statements were not signed until September for most districts. In September 2022, administrative staff signed the statements for the mayor’s office, Svarzbein, Annello, Hernandez, Molinar, Salcido, Rivera and Lizarraga. Documents show Rodriguez signed her fuel card statement in September 2022.

Leeser, Annello and Hernandez signed the statements in April 2023, according to the documents.

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...