Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, who has refused to step down since his indictment earlier this month, is being targeted under a Texas law that allows some residents to submit a petition to a district court seeking the elected official's removal.
A judge heard preliminary arguments during a hearing in Brownsville, with both sides offering different opinions about how state law governs a removal petition and which sections of the law apply.
"The court can do nothing at this point other than dismiss it for want of jurisdiction," said chief first assistant district attorney Rene Gonzalez, who was representing his boss. Gonzalez also complained that Villalobos, who wasn't at the hearing, had not been properly served in the matter.
But attorney Juan Angel Guerra, who is representing petitioner Trinidad Salinas, said the purpose of Friday's hearing was for the judge to decide whether the petition was legitimate enough that a citation be issued compelling Villalobos to appear. Salinas, of Harlingen, is asking that Villalobos be suspended pending the criminal case's outcome, arguing that the district attorney's office would be "under a cloud of legitimacy" if Villalobos remains.
Guerra said he could fix the petition, making the complaint more specific, and return.
Visiting Senior Judge J. Manuel Banales didn't immediately make a ruling Friday, saying he would consider the arguments and reconsider the issue on May 30 if the petition's flaws were fixed.
"If certain matters are cured, this matter may proceed," Banales said.
Guerra also is one of Villalobos' opponents in an upcoming Democratic congressional primary, which has prompted Villalobos' lawyer in the criminal case to call the petition "purely political." Guerra is not a resident of Cameron County.
Federal prosecutors accuse Villalobos of taking more than $100,000 in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for using his prosecutorial discretion. He was indicted after a years-long investigation that has netted several local attorneys and former officials.
Villalobos has denied all of the charges and insisted that he would keep his job and continue his campaign.
Salinas' petition argues that others "who should be protecting the integrity of the legal and judicial system in Cameron County are not stepping forward for fear of retaliation by (Villalobos) and his cohorts in the corruption that has gripped Cameron County, in particular and South Texas in general, for generations."
He attached Villalobos' federal indictment to the petition as evidence, though the judge seemed skeptical Friday that the indictment would be sufficient.
Salinas did not explain in the petition his own complaint about Villalobos' behavior, specifically a forfeiture case that Villalobos brought against a game room that Salinas ran as a nonprofit. Guerra alleged that Villalobos targeted Salinas' business yet not another across the street.
Guerra made national headlines in 2008 when he was district attorney in neighboring Willacy County and a local grand jury returned indictments against then-Vice President Dick Cheney, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and several others. The indictments were later dismissed.
Guerra faced his own removal petition while under a state indictment, and he referenced that Friday -- though Banales presided over the case. That indictment was eventually dismissed and the removal did not move forward.
Texas law allows for the immediate removal of a county official convicted of a felony or misdemeanor involving official misconduct -- but not for an indictment. However, a resident who isn't under criminal indictment can submit a petition detailing an official's alleged misconduct to a district court in a process that could ultimately lead to the official being removed from office.