Document shines light into possible conflict of interest
A review of a 2017 internal audit of the Brownsville Fire Department’s use of a private ambulance company last year reveals that despite not owning the company, former fire Chief Carlos Elizondo pledged a Harley Davidson motorcycle to a bank as collateral for a loan for the company.
City Commissioner Ben Neece handed that review, which was conducted by the certified public accounting firm Burton, McCumber & Longoria on behalf of the Audit and Oversight Committee, to the City Secretary on Tuesday, moments before the city commission voted 4-3 to abolish that committee.
It’s not immediately clear why the city commission abolished the committee. City commissioners Ricardo Longoria Jr. and Joel Mungia, who together filed the document to bring a vote to abolish the committee, did not respond to requests for comment.
The review document indicates that evidence obtained from the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office and Brownsville Independent School District board meeting minutes suggest that Elizondo may have had a conflict of interest in relation to InterCity Ambulance — the private ambulance company that operated without a permit on 78 occasions between December 2016 and April 2017.
“Although the appearance of a conflict of interest exists, we are not able and do not render a legal opinion as to the existence of such conflict of interest,” the review states.
On June 21, 2016, the BISD board approved a $165,000 contract with the International Academy of Emergency Medical Technology (IAEMT) to perform Emergency Medical Science basic certification training and to establish a Basic Fire Suppression course for 32 students, according to the review.
“In this agenda item, Chief Elizondo abstained from voting on this agenda item presumably because of a conflict of interest,” the document states. “IAEMT is commonly owned by Justin Oakerson as director and member manager of Intercity.”
Burton, McCumber & Longoria also said it obtained a report from the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office that identifies a relationship between Elizondo and InterCity Ambulance.
“The report relates to an inquiry of a loan officer at a local bank regarding a request for a line-of-credit requested by Mr. Justin Oakerson as owner and managing member of Intercity. The report states that at the time of the loan, the bank needed additional collateral in order to secure the loan,” the document states.
The bank told InterCity Ambulance that at the time of the loan, it needed additional collateral to secure the loan.
“The bank officer recalled that a Harley Davidson Motorcycle … owned by Chief Elizondo was pledged to (the) bank as security for the Intercity line-of-credit,” the document states. “The Bank officer recalled that he had met with Justin Oakerson and Chief Elizondo and could not recall why Elizondo, who was not an owner of Intercity, would have pledged his personal asset for intercity.”
The first mention of InterCity Ambulance and Elizondo in the review regards a brief presentation to the city commission on Dec. 13, 2016, indicating rate increase recommendations for EMS based on comparable rates in Port Isabel and Harlingen, though no analysis was presented during the public hearing, which was approved with no discussion by the city commission on Jan. 3, 2017, according to the review.
One week later, Elizondo authorized and executed a mutual aid agreement with InterCity, which was prepared on InterCity letterhead and signed by Oakerson.
“On June 13, 2017 a Cameron County Grand Jury Subpoena was served to Mr. Arturo Rodriguez, Director of Public Health and Wellness for the City of Brownsville,” the document states.
That subpoena sought all documents related to the applications for a license and for city authorization submitted on behalf of InterCity Ambulance.
Nearly 10 days later, InterCity submitted its first permit request, which Rodriguez determined was incomplete. On July 10, 2017, InterCity tried again, but days later Rodriguez told the company its services were no longer needed.
The now-defunct Audit & Oversight Committee’s review of the internal audit revealed that the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office notified the Brownsville Police Department on May 23, 2017, that it was conducting a criminal investigation into Elizondo and the use of InterCity Ambulance.
That document also revealed that grand jury subpoenas were issued to former City Manager Charlie Cabler and the Human Resources Department on June 13, 2017.
“The City Manager, sometime thereafter, assigned two city employees from the Office of Internal Audit to conduct an administrative investigation into the matter,” according to the Audit & Oversight Committee’s investigation.
That internal audit is also the subject of the Dec. 3 review by Burton, McCumber & Longoria, which determined that it did not address key aspects of its primary objectives regarding the diversion of calls to an unlicensed ambulance service.
On Oct. 2, 2017, the Audit and Oversight Committee released its investigation into the internal audit of the Brownsville Fire Department’s use of InterCity Ambulance that reported that Cabler knew that Elizondo was operating in the city without a permit and without approval from the city commission even after former Brownsville Police Department Chief Orlando C. Rodriguez advised Cabler of irregularities regarding re-routing of ambulance calls to InterCity Ambulance.
Cabler retired 10 days later, saying he felt the city needed a different direction and because he wanted to be with his mother, who is battling leukemia. At a press conference announcing his retirement, Cabler declined to answer questions about whether the Oct. 2, 2017, investigation influenced his decision.
Cabler is currently running for mayor in 2019 election, according to posts he made on his campaign Facebook page.
Just five days after Cabler retired, Elizondo turned himself into the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office on accusations he stole from the Brownsville Fire Fighters Association.
As for that June 2017 Cameron County grand jury, District Attorney Spokeswoman Victoria Cisneros said in a statement that it resulted in the 11-count computer security breach indictment alleging he accessed the Brownsville Fire Department’s Emergency Reporting System without authorization.
“The investigation continues and therefore, the office has no further comment,” Cisneros said in the statement.
Elizondo has maintained his innocence.
Herald Staff Writer Steve Clark contributed to this report