Attorney General opens human trafficking investigation into Austin private school

News

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Attorney General’s Office has accused the founder of a private school of intentionally refusing to release information and records related to a human trafficking investigation at the school. The investigation was opened sometime before February 2019.

Now, 15 months later, the Attorney General’s Office is still trying to compile records in the case and has not sought criminal charges related to any of the allegations laid out in a new 14-page filing.

The AG’s office wants a Travis County judge to force the founder of Austin Eco Bilingual School, Adriana Rodriguez, to cooperate in the state’s civil investigation, according to the May 5 filing.

Adriana Rodriguez is the subject of a human labor trafficking investigation underway at the TX Attorney General’s Office. Rodriguez is the founder of Austin Eco Bilingual School. (Credit: Austin Eco Bilingual School’s website)

The state accused Rodriguez of “labor trafficking” employees by threatening them with arrest or deportation in order force them to continue working at the school.

The school operates two campuses in north and south Austin and provides care for infants through first graders, according to the school’s website.

State investigators sent the first Civil Investigative Demand to Rodriguez in February 2019, according to a court document filed in Travis County on May 5.

That letter contained 59 separate “requests for information,” according to the attorney general’s filing. But, the school “…objected to 58 of them in bad faith, asserting 111 total objections,” Assistant Attorney General John Ramsey wrote in the latest pleading.

“The responses, which were certified by Adriana Rodriguez, contained several material omissions and objections which lacked a good-faith basis in law or fact,” Ramsey wrote.

The Attorney General’s Office’s pleading does not show any formal subpoenas sent in connection to the case, although the pleading details several criminal acts alleged against Rodriguez.

The trafficking investigation started after investigators got reports from “multiple employees” who claimed Rodriguez would threaten them with arrest or deportation to “ensure their continued labor” at the school.

Rodriguez would work to find teachers with “uncertain immigration status, no legal status, or status that binds them to Austin Eco Bilingual School for legal residency,” the court filing shows. “Employees further report that Adriana Rodriguez then leverages her teachers’ immigration status against them by threatening to have them deported, arrested and/or separated from their children in order to ensure their continued labor in what many employees describe as an intolerable work environment.”

The attorney general’s filing claimed Rodriguez would often pay teachers in cash and in “under the table” arrangements. Investigators found one employee who was paid $3 an hour, according to the court record.

The state’s filing also states state school employees detailed how Rodriguez would “weaponize” her relationships with “powerful public officials in Austin and in Texas” to make the workers believe she could “make good” on the threats of arrest or deportation.

The filing does not name any of those officials.

State investigators allege parents and employees of the school reported teachers were living inside the school. AEBS has two locations in Austin, according to the school’s website. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Parents and employees told the Attorney General’s investigators that some teachers were living at the school.

The court document also detailed how Rodriguez “forbade” employees from discussing the school with parents or when a teacher would plan to leave the school.

Rodriguez also reportedly banned employees from talking to one another — even when they were not on the clock — and then allegedly used the school’s surveillance camera system to enforce these prohibitions.

“These are silly allegations,” Randy Leavitt told KXAN.

Leavitt is one of the attorneys representing Rodriguez in the case.

“This is not more of a human trafficking organization than my law firm is,” he said.

Leavitt said he’s asked the AG’s office to file a civil lawsuit in the case so Rodriguez could begin deposing her accusers and so the state would be forced to present its evidence.

“They haven’t filed because the reason is, they don’t have anything,” Leavitt said, pointing to the AG’s office spending 15 months waiting for records in the case.

Rodriguez was set for a deposition in January, but the state canceled that, according to Leavitt. The next contact they had with the AG’s investigators was the May 5 petition for an enforcement order against Rodriguez.

“We’ve spent countless hours responding to their questions and doing records searches,” Leavitt told KXAN. Rodriguez and her attorneys have turned over everything they have to the state, he said.

“Put up the proof, file the suit and we’ll see you at the courthouse,” Leavitt said in a phone call with KXAN.

The Attorney General wants a hearing scheduled in Travis County to force Rodriguez to “provide complete and truthful responses” to the initial investigatory demand letter sent in February 2019.

The filing does not indicate a criminal investigation is underway into the state’s allegations of labor trafficking. We’ve asked the Attorney General’s Office for an explanation for that and why the office is not using subpoenas to gather the records from Rodriguez and the school.

“Unfortunately, it is long standing OAG policy not to comment on pending litigation or case planning, and we cannot comment at this time,” the Attorney General’s Office wrote to KXAN in an emailed statement.

A date for a hearing on the AG’s enforcement order has not yet been set.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Don't Miss

More Don't Miss