Criminal cases leave South Texas constituents unrepresented

July 3, 2018 GMT

Residents of Texas Senate District 19 deserved better.

Last week, former state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, joined the ranks of a growing list of South Texas elected officials sentenced to prison.

Uresti was sentenced June 26 to 12 years in federal prison on fraud charges in connection with the operations of the now-defunct FourWinds Logistics, a company that specialized in sand used in oil production. He was also ordered to pay $6.3 million in restitution.

His lawyers, friends, family and associates urged leniency in sentencing by Senior U.S. District Judge David Ezra. In their pleas in court and more than 50 letters penned to the judge, Uresti’s supporters cited the former senator’s years of public service. They noted the good work he had done as a state lawmaker on behalf of abused children, veterans and others.

We applauded his many accomplishments representing his district. But that record is one of the reasons the 12-year sentence is merited.

Uresti used that record, the prestige of his office derived from that record and the power of his Senate seat to rope investors into a Ponzi scheme. He banked on the trust and respect garnered from his service in the Texas Legislature to make targets feel secure about their investments.

Among the dozens of letters submitted in support of leniency for the former state senator was one from Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood.

LaHood’s involvement in the sentencing phase of this case is wrong on many levels.

Although he was defeated in his bid for re-election, LaHood is still the county’s top elected law enforcement officer in our community. He has no business advocating for someone who has been convicted by a jury.

Lahood was co-owner of a company that did business with FourWinds. He never disclosed that relationship when an investor tried to get him to investigate FourWinds for possible wrongdoing. That investor eventually went to the FBI, which launched the investigation that brought down Uresti.

In the more than a year since formal charges were brought against Uresti, constituents in his district have been without effective representation. While an indictment is not a pronouncement of guilt and there are no state laws requiring elected officials to give up their post when facing criminal charges, they should.

Multicount indictments, especially when they could result in the loss of liberty and livelihood as they did in Uresti’s case, can be distracting, to say the least. Just how effective can someone facing criminal charges be among his colleagues?

But it took Uresti four months after his conviction to resign his seat. And this apparently occurred to meet a milestone anniversary in his career in elected office. He gave up his State Bar license rather than face disbarment proceedings, but his constituents had no such recourse to get effective representation.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stripped Uresti of his committee assignments, and his colleagues in the Legislature urged his resignation after his conviction in February. Still Uresti held on until he had achieved his 22nd anniversary as a state elected official.

This last self-serving act delayed the call of special election to fill his unexpired term and left the 800,000 residents of District 19 without a voice for too long.

An ironic upside of all this is that the delay bolstered his state official pension, which might come in handy for making restitution.

Uresti, 54, is eligible to immediately begin collecting an estimated $80,000 a year pension for his years in the Legislature.