An outside investigation into city elected official’s gas card purchases will be conducted by an independent attorney following an audit that found two city representatives had “excessively” purchased fuel last year.

City documents show that elected officials were given gas cards to use for their own vehicles even though city policy limited the gas cards use to only city-owned vehicles, most of which are in Streets and Maintenance Department fleets.

That policy, and the lack of clear direction for City Council members’ use of the cards, led police to close their investigation of card usage without any criminal charges.

“Members of City Council should have never received the cards and that any guidance that was given to them as far as the use of the cards was not covered by any policy,” a police incident report states about the gas card usage.

The City Council held a special meeting Thursday to go over the results of an internal audit of procurement card and fuel card spending for calendar year 2022 that found city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez and former city Rep. Claudia Rodriguez used their fuel cards more than any other elected official that year.

El Paso city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez, left, and former city Rep. Claudia Rodriguez

The audit of fuel-card spending came after Chief Internal Auditor Edmundo Calderon said he received an anonymous tip that Rodriguez was using her card to fill her tank during her failed reelection bid.

After a two-hour executive session the council voted 6-1 to have outside legal counsel find an independent investigator to conduct the future investigation and direct the city’s chief internal auditor to continue his audit to include spending data from 2020 and 2021 for elected officials.

“There’s been a lot of accusations towards Council, towards the auditor, towards me, so we want to hire somebody that’s totally independent of the city to continue the investigation,” said Mayor Oscar Leeser ahead of the vote, adding they also want the chief internal auditor to finish his investigation. “We feel your investigation is still not complete. You had prior years that you started working on. We’d like to see those finished and year-to-date.”

Hernandez voted against the motion. City Rep. Isabel Salcido was not at the meeting.

The City Council did not mention how much it will spend on the outside investigation.

Results from the audit show Hernandez and Rodriguez spent about $12,000 on gas with their city-issued gas cards for calendar year 2022.

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

A 2020 audit of the Streets and Maintenance fuel cards found the city had no policy regarding cards. One was adopted in 2021 and updated in 2022, but the policy never covered use of gas cards for personally owned vehicles by council members or other employees.

The city allowed elected officials to use gas cards for their personal vehicles, even though city policy restricted their use to vehicles owned by the municipal government. The audit didn’t say who authorized distribution of the cards to council members, but said they were provided by the Streets and Maintenance Department.

A police incident sheet that looked into possible allegations of stolen gas that was conducted during the audit was provided to City Council after the Financial Oversight and Audit Committee requested copies of it be provided to the full council.

The FOAC met May 4 to review the results of the audit, where new allegations of misuse of the fuel cards and procurement cards surfaced.

The officers ultimately determined that no crime had been committed based on the city’s 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 policy has rules that apply to city employees that are assigned city vehicles.

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

City officials did not give a timeline for when the recommendations will be presented to the City Council.

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...