El Paso city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez violated the ethics ordinance by repeatedly using her taxpayer funded fuel card and by giving her husband access to the card, the city’s Ethics Review Commission ruled late Thursday.
The commission also unanimously voted to issue her a letter of reprimand. The decision was made after two days of discussions.
No other action will be taken against Hernandez by the ethics commission and the matter is now considered closed as her violations will not be referred to the City Council, according to outside legal counsel.
“We read, we heard, we evaluated and we discussed,” said Ethics Review Commission Chair Casey Williams. “I hope a message has been made to the public that these issues matter.”
In a statement Friday, Hernandez called the reprimand “deeply troubling” and said she was being punished because the city issued her a gas card without guidance on its use.
“If the Commission genuinely believes that these matters are of significance, it is essential for them to apply the same standard across the board and issue similar reprimands to all City Council members. Furthermore, they should take a proactive stance in advocating for the establishment of a coherent and applicable gas card policy,” Hernandez said.
The letter of reprimand is the second most serious sanction available to the commission. Under city laws it is issued when the commission finds wrongdoing was “committed intentionally or through disregard” of city ethics rules.
Hernandez is the second City Council member to face reprimand by the ethics commission. Larry Romero was repimanded in 2016 over street resurfacing in his district. City Manager Tommy Gonzales was given a letter of admonishment, a lesser sanction, in that same case.
The most serious sanction in the city’s ethics ordinance is a recommendation that City Council remove a person from office.
The Ethics Review Commission found that Hernandez violated two provisions of the ethics ordinance, based on a complaint filed against her by George Zavala, a resident in the city representative’s District 3.
Hernandez has been under scrutiny for her use of a city-issued fuel card following an audit of the program that found she spent $6,700 in 2022, significantly higher than her peers. Hernandez also spent significantly more than current and prior elected officials from September 2019 through April, according to an El Paso Matters analysis.
The ethics commission, consisting of non-elected officials, hears complaints about alleged violations of the city’s ethics ordinance, including those by elected officials. Hearings are held to review complaints if they are referred by the City Attorney’s Office or outside legal counsel. The commission determines whether violations occurred and what sanction to impose.
Elena Grasheim, Hernandez’s appointee to the ethics commission, recused herself from the hearing since Wednesday after the commission addressed routine items on the meeting agenda. Grasheim attended the beginning of the meeting virtually and logged off moments before the hearing started.
Zavala, during the hearing, said he wanted the commission to recommend removal from office following an at-times emotional discussion.
“There are people out there that struggle that can’t pay their bills, that can’t fill their 2022 vehicle or their 2020 vehicle,” Zavala said. “They have to walk, they have to think ‘I can’t take my diabetes (medication), but I have to pay my taxes’ and then we have an official spending on the gas card like nothing with no repercussions. None. It’s black and white folks.”
Among the concerns that surfaced following the audit and mentioned in Zavala’s complaint were that Hernandez was fueling multiple vehicles on back-to-back days and in instances when she was out of town. Video also surfaced of Hernadez’s husband, Jeremy Jordan, allegedly using her fuel card to fill up his truck, which Zavala included as evidence.
Hernandez denied any wrongdoing throughout the rigorous questioning by the commissioners.
During the hearing, Hernandez acknowledged for the first time publicly that she allowed Jordan to use her city-issued card to put gas in his vehicle – an assertion she previously denied. She said the couple uses the family’s vehicles interchangeably throughout any given day to fulfill her work-related trips and family obligations.
Hernandez refuted that there was any personal benefit from her use of the fuel card – one of the chapters of the ethics ordinance in question – when asked by Commissioner Ryan Woodcraft.
“I disagree that there has been any personal benefit because I’ve been able to demonstrate all of our fuel personal expenses in our household that would offset any concern of personal benefit,” Hernandez said of family bank statements she provided that showed about $2,500 in personal fuel card purchases.
Hernandez maintained she did not violate the ethics ordinance or city policy because there was and is no existing policy that applied to elected officials’ use of the fuel cards.
Asked if Hernandez understood why there may be a public perception of impropriety in the use of public funds by Commissioner Richarda Momsen, Hernandez initially did not answer directly. Rather, she responded by saying she was not the only elected official mentioned in the audit report for high fuel card spending.
Momsen then asked if Hernandez felt the perception of her fuel card usage was ethical.
“My perception is that all of the usage of my fuel card was for my work related to the 1,000 plus meetings a year I do, and to host all of the events I do on behalf of my constituents and all of the work above and beyond and the usage of my fuel has been for work related travel,” Hernandez said.
The audit released in May found there was no policy in place for elected officials to use the cards, or a policy for the use of fuel cards for personal vehicles. The fuel card program was designed for city-owned vehicles such as fleets for streets and maintenance as well as for the police and fire departments.
Edmundo Calderon, the city’s chief internal auditor who conducted the audit, recommended the city end the fuel card program for elected officials. He recommended the city instead consider a gas stipend similar to the ones in place for some city employees such as executive leadership staff.
A November 2020 audit of the Streets and Maintenance Fuel Card program found there was no policy in place for use of the fuel cards. A policy was established in 2021 following the audit, but did not address the usage of the cards by elected officials or for use for personal vehicles.
Elected officials were given the fuel cards for the current contract with Alon Brands, Inc. in 2019.
An investigation by El Paso police determined no city policy was violated and no crime was committed by Hernandez. The police investigation also determined elected officials should never have been given the fuel cards based on the existing city policy.
Interim City Manager Cary Westin ended the fuel card program for elected officials this week, he said in an email statement to El Paso Matters.
“In the management response to the audit, I recommended eliminating the fuel cards and initiating a policy or program to provide each Council Member a vehicle allowance, based on the existing staff vehicle allowance program,” Westin said in the statement.
Westin added that staff is collecting fuel cards held by elected officials and anticipated collecting all the cards by the end of the week.
Any vehicle allowance program would have to be approved by the City Council. No item for such a program was on this week’s meeting agendas.
Hernandez returned her city-issued gas card and paid the city $6,700 in May for the fuel she purchased in 2022.
Her fuel-card usage from September 2019 through April totaled $13,330.
Ethics complaints were also filed against city Reps. Alexsandra Annello and Brian Kennedy related to the fuel cards. The complaints will be reviewed by the ethics commission later.
9 a.m. July 21: This story has been updated with a statement from city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez.