The 105th

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A judge shall be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants,

Bañales shifts bond funds to husband's office
Couple: County must provide space for judge

By Dan Kelley (Contact)
Originally published 03:46 a.m., April 29, 2008
Updated 03:46 a.m., April 29, 2008
Bañales' vote, involvement do not appear to be conflict of interest, attorney says.
Bañales' vote, involvement do not appear to be conflict of interest, attorney says.


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Nueces County Commissioner Peggy Bañales voted to take $118,000 for roadwork in her precinct and spend it inside the courthouse instead -- on a new office for her husband, Judge J. Manuel Bañales.

The judge, who presides over the 105th District Court, had been appointed recently to the additional duty of presiding judge of the 5th Judicial District. In those two capacities, he now maintains two offices in the courthouse.

The Bañaleses said the county was obligated to provide an office for the presiding judge, and that the money would have had to come from somewhere.

"No matter where the money came from, the county would have to do it," Commissioner Bañales said.

The transfer occurred June 13 after Commissioner Bañales abstained from two other votes related to the renovation, one on March 21 and another April 17. She said she wanted to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.

Behind the scenes however, she worked to secure funding.

And on June 13, when a vote to shift the money for the project came up, she was the second of two commissioners who called to bring the transfer to a vote.

Her vote and involvement do not appear to be a potential conflict of interest, according to the county attorney. Commissioner Bañales also said she voted for the transfer because it contained increased funding for other projects, such as the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds.

Of the $165,000 used to renovate the judge's offices, about $118,000, came from 2004 bond funds earmarked to rehabilitate County Road 52 in Precinct 1, which is represented by Commissioner Bañales. Commissioner Betty Jean Longoria contributed about $40,000 from funds she controlled.

Each commissioner maintains a portion of the bond funds to be used in his or her district and each has control over that portion of the funds. Some have more than $1 million dollars left since the county issued the certificates of obligation.

When asked why he needed the second office, Judge Bañales said the county was obligated to provide an office for the presiding judge, and that the money would have had to come from somewhere.

Judge Bañales said he uses the office to have regular meetings with judges from across the region. He also uses the office for a committee that issues credentials for lawyers working in death penalty cases.

Commissioner Bañales said she used money slated for County Road 52 because another bond issue, from 2007, also included money for that road. She said other options to pay for the renovation included using money from the general reserve and taking money away from some other project.

"There was money available," she said. "It seemed that was the best solution."

Judge Bañales said he isn't the first presiding judge to have two offices -- two others who held the post in Edinburg and Brownsville also did.

"You have to keep in mind that the county is obligated to provide those funds, if it was for me or another individual," Judge Bañales said.

The judge estimated that he spends 20 percent to 30 percent of his time serving as presiding judge. Duties of that post include assigning cases to other judges in situations where another judge is ill or incapacitated, and presiding over situations in which a party in a lawsuit has asked a judge to step aside or recuse himself or herself from a case.

Judge Bañales also sits on the bench for civil and criminal trials in both Nueces and Kleberg counties.

The office has a kitchen, bathroom, and a large conference room where judges from several counties meet regularly.

Commissioner Bañales' vote likely is not a conflict of interest under Texas law. County officials generally are prohibited from voting on matters in which their close relatives have a financial or business interest, and this situation likely doesn't add up to a financial or business interest, County Attorney Laura Garza Jimenez said.

Bañales was appointed to a four-year term as presiding judge in January 2007.

He is the first judge from Nueces County to hold that post in more than 20 years.

Initially, Judge Bañales asked to house his new offices on the 10th floor of the courthouse, where the 13th Court of Appeals meets. He wanted to use office space the court of appeals wasn't using.

The Court of Appeals had other ideas.

A letter signed by six justices complained that locating Bañales on the 10th floor could allow visitors to his office to overhear the court's deliberations. It also would have ejected some of the court of appeals' staff.

By March, Judge Bañales had agreed to offices on the fifth floor.

Contact Dan Kelley at 886-4316 or

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