Virus case prompts public defender’s office to close

Attorneys working remotely; 7 employees test positive at detention facility

McALLEN — The U.S. Public Defender’s Office in McAllen is closed after a person who visited the office tested positive for COVID-19 last week, multiple sources with knowledge of the situation said.

According to two sources within the office, who are being kept anonymous because they’re not authorized to speak on the matter, attorneys there have been told to stay home for at least a week as a precaution after they learned late Wednesday night that one person who visited the office on Tuesday, June 16, had tested positive for the virus.

On Monday, only an automated message played when a call was made to the listed number for the local public defender’s office, stating it had closed due to COVID-19 and that attorneys were working remotely.

In addition, the online website that tracks federal cases — Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER — showed zero cases scheduled for Monday for any of the U.S. district judges.

One source who spoke to The Monitor about the positive case said coincidently two members of the McAllen federal building’s cleaning staff at Bentsen Tower also tested positive for COVID-19, but the source said they were unsure if it was connected to the other person.

When reached, the public information officer for the Southern District of Texas U.S. Attorney’s Office would not comment on the COVID-19 cases, stating it was out of their purview and deferred to the U.S. Public Defender’s Office.

According to the source, they, and many of the attorneys in the public defender’s office have sought out their own tests after learning of the positive diagnosis late in the week.

The source said they expected magistrates to continue to show up to the building, and had only heard from one other judge who had questions regarding the COVID-19 case.

“We still have a lot of cases,” the source, a longtime attorney, said. “We’re working remotely until they tell us we can go back.”

Another source, who said they’re working from home this week, said they were told to not come back “until further notice.”

“They haven’t really given us much guidance. They actually gave us (electronic) tablets right before everything happened, so it’s worked out,” another source who spoke anonymously said.

Local attorneys reached out to The Monitor late Friday after they noticed that all their federal court cases had been canceled without explanation.

Carlos A. Garcia, a Mission-based defense attorney, said he was surprised to get notices late Friday afternoon that all three of the cases he was set to appear for next week had been canceled.

“Yes, the way I found out, like every other lawyer who practices in federal court, we get email notifications when there is a change, or status update. On Friday, I received notice of three cases set for the week being canceled, where neither the government or defendant were asking for the hearings to be canceled,” Garcia said. “To have different judges in three different cases cancel in one week — no, I hadn’t experienced that before.”

LA VILLA JAIL

On Monday, a spokesperson for GEO Group, which operates the East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa, known as the La Villa jail, confirmed that seven employees had tested positive for COVID-19.

“All of the employees who tested positive are currently at home on self-quarantine, where they will remain until they meet the return-to-work guidelines for essential workers issued by the CDC,” a prepared statement from GEO Group stated.

The statement goes on to say jail officials are coordinating with federal officials regarding health precautions related to the virus.

“We have issued a statement on the comprehensive steps GEO has taken at all our facilities to address the risks of COVID-19 to all those in our care and our employees, who are on the front lines making daily sacrifices to provide care for all those in our facilities. We will continue to coordinate closely with the U.S. Marshals Service and local health agencies to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees.”

Garcia said he too had heard about the positive cases out of the La Villa jail, a location Garcia visits often.

Garcia said he was surprised to hear about La Villa because of the precautions they take for people who visit detainees, such as himself.

“We have to fill out a form that has questions about where we’ve been, who we’ve been in contact with, asks if we are showing systems,” he said. “As people walk in they have to fill out these sheets. The facility, in my experience, has been proactive in trying to keep those that visit the facility from being exposed.”

Garcia said he represented a client who requested to be released due to underlying medical issues and said the court denied the release, stating the detainees were better off inside the facility.

“It’s not the detainees that are infected, it’s likely coming from staff members. Staff members are the ones who leave the facility. In the last month, I had a hearing trying to get a client released because of his age. He has underlying health issues, and the argument to leave him in custody was that he was safer in the facility,” Garcia said.

The federal courthouse in McAllen began restricting who could appear at the building at the beginning of April, when the government issued a statement on their website.

On Friday, the website for the Southern District of Texas U.S. Attorney’s Office was updated with new COVID-19 related information since April, when the court first addressed logistical instructions related to the pandemic.

The federal courts are exempt from shelter-in-place orders, but will work to minimize the need for non-essential people to appear at the courthouse, according to the website.

”These steps have included deferring any non-essential in-court appearances or having them occur by telephone or video conference. The clerks’ office will have a much reduced staff, enough to keep up with processing the mail and with intake needs. Docketing and most other tasks will be handled remotely,” the website stated.

lzazueta@themonitor.com