Official seeks fair trial: Elizondo asks judge for change of venue in case
Former Brownsville fire chief Carlos Elizondo believes it’s impossible for him to obtain a fair trial in Cameron County because of news coverage of his case and what he says are sensational allegations and conspiracy theories related to controversial city audits.
"Defendant recognizes that changes of venue are not routine. But this is hardly a routine case. Given Defendant’s prior positions as the Brownsville Fire Department Chief and (Brownsville Independent School District) board member, this case has attracted extraordinary pretrial publicity throughout Cameron County, at times headlining local newspapers," a motion to change venue states. "Even pre-trial motions are wildly covered. Fueled by sensational allegations and conspiracy theories, local officials, local bloggers and everyday citizens have strived to connect Mr. Elizondo’s arrests as well as numerous searches of his residence and those of his relatives to various City Audits."
Elizondo is facing two indictments: one accusing him of theft and misapplication of fiduciary duty over allegations he stole from the fire fighters association and another accusing him of 11 counts of computer security breach, alleging he illegally accessed the fire department’s emergency reporting system. Elizondo has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
In his motion for a change of venue, Elizondo suggests Nueces or Bexar counties would be more appropriate for the proceedings because a potential jury pool will not have been saturated with publicity.
"The prejudice from this widespread publicity is overwhelming," the motion states. "As a result, there is a ‘reasonable likelihood’ that outside influences and publicity will prevent a fair trial, and this ‘reasonable likelihood’ requires a change of venue."
In a statement, the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office said it is drafting a response in opposition to the motion for a change of venue.
The motion lists a chain of events that started on Sept. 7, 2017, when former City Manager Charlie Cabler, who has announced on social media that he is running for mayor, demoted Elizondo as fire chief to Dec. 4, 2018, when the City Commission abolished its Audit & Oversight Committee, where District 4 City Commissioner Ben Neece accused Elizondo of "‘one of the most corrupt schemes this city has ever seen’ where various city officials, including Mr. Elizondo, acted in concerted effort to funnel public monies into private entities."
That timeline of events also includes the now-infamous recording between City Commissioner At Large "A" Cesar De Leon and Elizondo where De Leon is heard using a racial slur to describe African American prosecutors who work for the District Attorney. During that recording, De Leon pressures Elizondo to "fix" 404th state District Judge Elia Cornejo Lopez’s daughter’s "situation" at BISD, which is now the subject of a federal lawsuit she filed against the school district in her capacity as a parent, according to the motion.
"We all know Elia, and if you don’t know her, if your people at BISD don’t know her they are very stupid and they don’t know what they’re doing and they shouldn’t be in those positions if they don’t know Elia Cornejo ‘expletive’, ‘expletive’! That’s why I asked you ‘expletive’, Carlos please do it ‘expletive’, there is a way," the motion states, referencing the tape.
The motion also refers to Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz’s endorsement of BISD Trustee Erasmo Castro who ran against Elizondo’s re-election campaign, as well as a flier mailed to Brownsville residents that depicted a mugshot of Elizondo in an advertisement that promoted his other opponent, Otis Powers.
These incidents, and others, including coverage of Elizondo’s arrest and his challenges to multiple search warrants, have been highly publicized in newspaper articles, television news spots and by social media outlets to the community, according to the motion.
"In sum, they serve to create an impression of impropriety and corruption stemming from events, many of which are irrelevant to the trial at hand. Nonetheless, the stigma that attaches prevents a fair trial in Cameron County," the motion states. "Furthermore, given the District Attorney’s statement in open court that his witness list will include ‘everyone’ mentioned in every report, this trial may involve the testimony of numerous influential and political figures which will only serve to further politicize and prevent a fair trial."
In making his case, Elizondo points to "extensive" coverage of the criminal allegations against the former fire chief.
"The Brownsville Herald and the Valley Morning Start [sic] as well as every local TV station have run multiple stories about the criminal cases and related searches and have further publicized same on their websites," the motion states. "The print media blitz has been supplemented by web logs (blogs) that report, in excruciating detail, every event in the prosecution and defense of the criminal cases."
Elizondo complains in the motion that the publicity surrounding the case has been inflammatory and prejudicial.
"Numerous friends, colleagues and family have stood by Mr. Elizondo during the painful ordeals of the past year. But for those who do not know Mr. Elizondo personally, the vociferous and condemnatory language of the press against Mr. Elizondo has undoubtedly taken a toll. The tone of the publicity about Elizondo has been exceedingly negative," the motion states.
The motion also alleges that local editorials, letters to the editor and website postings have expressed hatred for Elizondo normally reserved for violent criminals and points to BISD political opponents of Elizondo grinding away those sentiments toward the former official. This kind of language will only inspire potential jurors to seek justice against Elizondo, who has been demonized and accused of damaging Cameron County’s reputation, according to the motion.
"A real threat is the complete intolerance of South Texans toward anything that much of the buzz this case has created and is borne from dislike of politics in South Texas: A lot of people take joy in watching politicians and public officials go down," the motion states.
Elizondo also alleges that local media have added political intrigue to the coverage of the former official’s case, which ignites political passion that should have nothing to do with how a criminal case is decided by a jury.
"But all of this suggests that, in Cameron County the trial will be covered as a political proceeding, in which a vote to convict is a vote for political reform, and a vote to acquit is a vote for continued corruption. This must be avoided," the motion states.
According to Elizondo’s motion, the pervasive coverage of the case, sensational rumors and innuendo, prejudicial statements by local officials, the injection of politics by media and calls for revenge against "corrupt officials" created an environment contaminated by prejudice.