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Texas Rangers Launch Investigation into Possible City Council Ethics Violation

El Paso, Texas (KTSM) - Authorities with the Texas Rangers have confirmed that an investigation into City Council Members Peter Svarzbein, Cortney Niland, Jim Tolbert, Lily Limon and Mayor Oscar Leeser for a potential violation of the Texas State Open Meetings Act is underway.

The incident in question happened back on December 19, 2016 when the five members met in two separate meetings with community stakeholders including Max Grossman and Bernie Sergeant from the El Paso County Historical Commission and members of the Paso Del Sur community group representing the Duranguito neighborhood.

The issue on the table was whether the city's proposed site in the Duranguito neighborhood for the $180 million bond project for the Multi-Purpose Performing Arts and Entertainment Center - otherwise known as the arena - should still be considered.

As part of NewsChannel 9's investigation, we exclusively uncovered a dozen text messages between Council members and the Mayor indicating that they may have had knowledge of the appearance of impropriety during their meeting.

Surveillance footage obtained as part of our Open Records Request also shows City council members entering and exiting Mayor Oscar Leeser's office on the morning of December 16.

The allegation the council members are currently facing surrounds the idea of a so-called 'rolling quorum' where members allegedly conspired to enter and exit the meeting in order to avoid having a full quorum - four council members and the mayor - present in the room at the same time.

On Monday December 19, after the closed-door meeting, El Pasoan Jud Burgess filed a formal ethics complaint against the four council members and Mayor Leeser for the alleged violation. A second complaint was filed on Tuesday, December 20, from a second El Pasoan, David Aviles for the same alleged violation.

Speaking with attorney Bill Aleshire with the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation on Thursday, he said that the meeting appeared to be a "flagrant violation" of a rolling quorum. He also said that El Paso City Attorney Sylvia Borunda Firth may also be facing similar problems in connection to the fact that she did not immediately recuse herself from hearing any ethics complaints regarding the Open Meetings Act.

Friday morning, January 20, 2017, the same El Paso man who launched the initial complaint against the four council members and Mayor Leeser, Jud Burgess, forwarded a copy of a second ethics complaint he plans to file with the City's Ethics Review Commission when City Hall reopens on Monday. City Hall is closed for business on Fridays.

In this second complaint, Burgess is lodging a complaint against Sylvia Borunda Firth, claiming that she violated a City ordinance by failing to hear the original ethics complaint within 20 days of the original filing. Firth's representative argued earlier this week that her staff interpreted that 20 days to mean business days, which would have excluded weekends, Fridays where City Hall is closed and the week and a half City Hall was closed over the Christmas and New Year's Holiday.

The second issue lodged in the complaint is that Borunda Firth didn't immediately recuse herself from the initial complaints and forward them to outside counsel, as Aleshire suggested, due to the fact that it may be a possible conflict of interest.

We were able to get in touch with Borunda Firth who told us via email that the chair of the ethics commission is right when it comes to his thought that she shouldn't handle the complaints against the council. In her statement she says quote:

"I agree with Mr. Aleshire.  Alleged violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act are the purview of the District Attorney or the County Attorney. By statute, district  courts have jurisdiction over such matters.  The alleged violations arise from state law not a municipal ordinance. The City Attorney's Office has not  provided legal counsel to any of the elected officials who are the subject of the investigation and we will not do so in the future."

NewsChannel 9 was able to confirm that District Attorney Jaime Esparza met privately with members of the Texas Rangers at some point in the last two weeks. Despite that meeting, the Rangers declined to comment on the issue only stating that they have "not received a formal request to investigate."

That is-- until today.

Friday, the Texas Rangers confirmed that they are indeed looking into the allegations and will conduct a full investigation into the matter.

In their statement released Friday afternoon, they said that the District Attorney's Office submitted a formal request to the Rangers for an investigation. Lt. Elizabeth Carter with the Texas Department of Public Safety said that once the Rangers complete their investigation, their findings will be forwarded to the El Paso County District Attorney's Office for review. 

The District Attorney's Office is not releasing any further information, they provided us with a simple statement in regards to their decision to seek assistance from the Texas Rangers.

"The District Attorney's Office requests the assistance of the Texas Rangers when necessary and we are confident in their abilities." - DA's Office

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