Perry refers Linebacker questions to U.S Attorney
Sheriff denies allegations of misuse
BY ELIZABETH PIERSON
The Brownsville Herald
Posted June 2, 2006
AUSTIN –- The question of whether a state grant is being used illegally by a border sheriff to catch immigrants has spread from El Paso to Austin, and some say the question could soon be raised in the Rio Grande Valley.
Gov. Rick Perry’s office said this week it is up to the U.S. Attorney to analyze any possible evidence regarding the use of Operation Linebacker money, said Perry spokesman Kathy Walt.
Perry’s office was responding to a letter written in May by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, chairman of the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus, asking Perry to detail appropriate uses of the money.
As part of Operation Linebacker, Perry last year designated $10 million to help local law enforcement deter and fight crime along the border by increasing patrols. He said local law enforcement was not expected to perform Border Patrol duties.
Hinojosa said his office has since received complaints that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office was using the money to set up checkpoints with the purpose of finding and apprehending undocumented immigrants who had not committed other crimes.
The department denies the allegations.
Perry answered Hinojosa on May 25 in a letter that read in part: “I am referring your letter to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas to review any possible civil rights violations. If you have additional evidence and information, please forward directly to that office for consideration.”
Hinojosa said he was pleased with the response because he thought it showed the governor favors further inspection of the situation.
The governor was not calling for an investigation in the letter because he does not have any evidence to show that a problem exists, Walt said.
“It would be the governor’s concern if law enforcement agencies were engaged in inappropriate activity,” Walt said. “Other than Sen. Hinojosa complaining about it, we have no evidence to show that is happening.”
Hinojosa read the response differently. He thought the very act of passing Hinojosa’s letter on to the U.S. Attorney showed the governor wanted further scrutiny of the funds, even if the governor did not call it an “investigation,” Hinojosa said.
“I don’t think he agrees with the response of his press person,” Hinojosa said. “Why if you don’t want the U.S. Attorney’s Office to see it, why do you send them a copy?”
El Paso County Sheriff’s Office spokesman said the allegations are false. The department has conducted traffic checkpoints long before the Operation Linebacker funds were offered, said Rick Glancey, director of public affairs. The checkpoints are not set up to catch illegal immigrants, he said.
When residents complain of cars speeding in an area, for example, the department sets up targeted checkpoints to deter that behavior and ticket those responsible, he said.
“There has been no Operation Linebacker money used by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office to conduct what has been a routine operation that is continuously done in law enforcement, and those are traffic checkpoints,” he said.
The allegations came out of “thin air” after El Paso County Sheriff Leo Samaniego announced he would support the Republican opponent of state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, in the November election, Glancey said.
“(Shapleigh) got his friend Chuy Hinojosa to make some calls on the Senate Caucus,” Glancey said. “Sen. Hinojosa used the Texas Hispanic Caucus letterhead to send the letter out making accusations based on hearsay.”
Hinojosa said that as chairman he is within his rights to speak for the Caucus members, with whom he is in regular contact. Shapleigh said the allegations are based on information he has received from immigrants, priests and civil rights groups familiar with the stops.
“Absolutely not,” Shapleigh said when asked whether he asked Hinojosa to write the letter because the sheriff endorsement his opponent. “I asked him because the law is being violated in El Paso, Texas, and the precedent being set here could easily go to McAllen, Brownsville, Arizona and New Mexico.”
Residents in El Paso this week presented a petition with 2,000 signatures to the commissioner’s court calling for Samaniego to resign. Another person has filed a lawsuit against the department, Shapleigh said.
Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr county sheriffs are among those who have received Operation Linebacker grant money from the state.