Christopher Maher, Alice Echo-News Journal
An internal audit and a criminal investigation have been requested into a purchase made by a city council member through a special city program last year.
The incident in question involved the purchase of two pairs of boots by City Council Member Michael Esparza in November of last year.
An internal review by the city's finance department recently highlighted the purchase of the boots, at a cost of $281.18, from a company named Lehigh Safety Shoe. The purchase was made through a special tax-free voucher program offered by the city to city employees.
The invoice for the boots includes the written name of then City Manager Pete Anaya in the signature authorization box. Further investigation revealed the purchases were made by Esparza, not Anaya, officials said.
On April 24, Assistant City Manager Sara Wilson wrote a memo to interim City Manager Ruben Maldonado requesting an investigation into the purchase.
"The initial information received draws the conclusion that public monies were not spent in accordance with policy: therefore, I am requesting a full account of what occurred and request payment back what is owed to the city," Wilson wrote.
When asked about the purchase Saturday, Esparza denied he had tried to obtain any benefit from the city, and offered as evidence the fact that he does not accept the $200 per year stipend paid to city council members.
"I've been serving for free for a number of years. I don't even take the stipend," Esparza said.
Esparza said he had asked permission from Anaya to purchase the boots from the company under the city's program. Esparza said Anaya had authorized the purchase, and told Esparza to write the name "Pete Anaya" in the signature box to confirm the authorization.
"I was not signing his name, I was writing it," Esparza said.
Esparza said he then wrote a check to the city for the $281.18 to pay for the purchase.
When the purchase was questioned by city staff last week, Esparza said he discovered his check had not been deposited by the city, so he wrote an additional check for the balance.
Reached for comment Monday, Anaya said he had never given Esparza authorization to use his name for the purchase of boots. Anaya confirmed he had been contacted by an investigator with the Alice Police Department conducting a criminal investigation into the purchase, but referred all additional questions to city administration and the Alice Police Department.
Alice Police Chief Danny Bueno declined to comment on any investigation Monday, and referred all questions to Maldonado.
Repeated calls to Maldonado were not returned Monday.
Esparza said he believes no wrongdoing occurred, and said the allegations were politically motivated.
"We're trying to keep the city healthy, and somebody's running around trying to make the city look bad," Esparza said.
Esparza also questioned why, nearly a week after Wilson wrote her memo, he had not been contacted by her regarding the purchase.
"What's concerning to me, is that I've never gotten a phone call," Esparza said. "I would think that they would call me before the memo was written."
When asked about her reasons for asking for the internal audit Friday, Wilson denied any political motivation.
"I'm not from this city, but I'm for this community," Wilson said. "We want to check the process and find out why this could happen."
Wilson said the purchase was brought to her attention by the city's finance department.
"Staff, during the course of their daily work, brought the concerns to me," Wilson said. "Staff was doing their job, and I'm trying to support the staff."
Wilson said she had forwarded the information to Mayor Grace Saenz-Lopez and Maldonado, but had not had any further involvement with it.
In a letter to Wilson, Maldonado and the city council written by City Attorney Joe Torres III April 27, Torres said the purchase of the boots was a "bookkeeping matter, not a legal one."
Torres did question the manner in which the issue was addressed.
"The issue that does concern me, however, is not whether there was an overpayment or not, but whether city employees are creating a cause of action for slander and libel," Torres wrote. "This is a civil liability issue with the potential of defamation of character."