Former El Paso city Rep. Claudia Rodrguez violated the city’s ethics ordinance and will be issued a letter of reprimand by the city’s ethics commission even though she is no longer in office. 

Rodriguez did not  attend Wednesday’s Ethics Review Commission hearing, but issued a public statement saying she didn’t trust the process. The Ethics Review Commission found that Rodriguez misused her city-issued fuel card. 

 Ethics Commissioner Mark-Thomas Bray said without Rodriguez, the commission was “forced with what we’re left with considering the evidence that was submitted during the course of this evening.”

The evidence submitted included video of a presentation to the Financial Audit and Oversight Committee meeting in May where the internal auditor presented findings of a fuel card audit, articles by local media including El Paso Matters and city policies.

The commissioners voted unanimously to issue Rodriguez the letter or reprimand, the highest sanction that could be given since Rodriguez is no longer in office and could not be issued a recommendation of removal from office.

Under city law, a letter of reprimand is issued when the commission finds wrongdoing was “committed intentionally or through disregard” of city ethics rules.

Commissioner Arnulfo Hernandez and commission Chair Casey Williams recused themselves from the hearing. Hernandez recused himself because he had previously filed campaign finance complaints against Rodriguez to the Texas Ethics Commission. Williams did not give a specific reason during the Oct. 30 commission meeting when he informed the commission he would recuse himself from the hearing. Commissioner Elena Grasheim served as chair during the hearing.

The complaint was filed by Phillip Laign in August following a fuel card audit published in May that raised questions about whether Rodriguez and city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez misused their fuel cards in 2022..

In the complaint, Laign alleged, in part, that Rodriguez improperly secured unwarranted privileges using her official position and utilized city resources for personal benefit.

The commission agreed.

Phillip Laign testified before the city’s Ethics Review Commission on Wednesday. Laign filed an ethics complaint against for city Rep. Claudia Rodriguez alleging she misused her city gas card.

“I want everyone to know that I supported her during her initial run for office and then her run for reelection and that I was gravely disappointed when all of these allegations came to light about excessive fuel spending months after she left the office,” Laign said during his testimony.

The audit was prompted by an anonymous tip alleging Rodriguez was using her fuel card to fill the tanks of her campaign workers ahead of her failed reelection bid.

Rodriguez was using her gas card every few days, according to the audit findings. She had 86 transactions costing taxpayers about $5,300 and used her card to fill up on Jan. 2 – her last day in office, according to the audit.

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. She also used her fuel card while out of town.

Rodriguez’s use of the fuel card showed she filled up with both premium and regular gas on multiple instances in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, according to an El Paso Matters analysis. The analysis showed Rodriguez filled up her gas tank in Carlsbad, New Mexico, during the Fourth of July weekend in 2021 – one of five times she used taxpayer dollars to purchase fuel out of town in less than three years in office.

The chief internal auditor told Rodriguez not to use her card for out-of-town fuel purchases following a fill-up in Pecos in 2020. Rodriguez said she does not recall the conversation and did not know the internal auditor.

Rodriguez spent about $10,260 during the time she served in office from February 2020 through Jan. 2.

The audit discovered that the cards were not meant to be issued to the mayor and city representatives because the policy did not include rules or guidelines for use of personal vehicles. The program was meant for the use of city-owned fleet vehicles for the Streets and Maintenance Department and emergency vehicles for the police and fire departments.

In July, the ethics commission issued Hernandez a letter of reprimand – the second most serious sanction available to the commission – for her use of the fuel card. Prior to the July hearing, Hernandez returned her fuel card and paid the city $6,700 for the fuel she used in 2022. Hernandez requested a reconsideration of the ruling in August, but the commission dismissed the request. 

An ethics complaint filed against city Rep. Alexsandra Annello for her use of the fuel card was dismissed by the commission in August.

The city ended the fuel card program for elected officials in July.

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...