Justice RGV says it won’t be intimidated.
On Wednesday, the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office offered a $5,000 reward leading to the identification of the “author” of the Justice RGV Facebook page. The sheriff’s office is offering an additional award of $5,000 “that leads to the identity of the employee that unlawfully obtained the video and leaked the video without the effective consent of the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office,” according to its post.
That video shows a Cameron County sheriff’s jailer walking down a hallway with an inmate. The unidentified jailer opens a door, stops the inmate and moves him to the side of the hallway as he looks to his right of the door he opened. The door is cracked when the officer appears to see something out of the camera’s view.
Seconds later, another guard enters this hallway with an inmate who appears to reach for a piece of paper in the other guard’s hand. This guard pushes that inmate in the upper back, left shoulder. As the inmate walks down the hallway followed by the guard he turns around and shuffles to the left in what looks like a confrontational manner. It’s unclear if he’s saying anything as his back is to the camera.
The man guarding the other inmate sees this, pulls out what appears to be a can of pepper spray, turns around and walks up to the inmate who shuffles, approaches to about a foot of the handcuffed man’s face, says something and then sprays him in the face with the can.
The officer guarding the man had placed his hands at arms-length on this inmate’s front-faced shoulders, preventing him from moving toward the other officer as this unfolds.
As the one-minute long video ends, another officer is seen rushing into the hallway with an unidentified object in his right hand as the inmate sprayed in the face is led away, holding his hands to his eyes.
There is no audio.
A few days before the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office offered the reward, Justice RGV had already heard rumblings that the office had opened an investigation into how the video reached the Facebook page’s followers.
“I thought it was a joke,” Justice RGV said of the sheriff’s investigation and reward.
But it’s not, and Justice RGV, who The Monitor is not identifying, knows it.
“I cannot laugh too much about it because it does have serious consequences,” Justice RGV said.
The leaked video published on July 8, just days before 19-year incumbent Sheriff Omar Lucio lost the Democratic primary on July 14 to former Cameron County District Clerk Eric Garza, who is now locked in a race with former Indian Lakes police chief and Republican John Chambers.
Chambers has appealed a conviction on 14 misdemeanor counts of tampering with a government record over allegations he told a subordinate to falsify firearms qualifications in 2015 to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement for 14 reserve officers.
“A conviction under the election code is not considered ‘final’ until all appeals are exhausted. My case is under appeal and no mandate has come down other than the Court of Criminal appeals overturning the felony aspect and issuing a mandate for ‘reverse and remand,’” Chambers said in a statement to The Brownsville Herald after Lucio endorsed the candidate in August.
Chambers’ attorney has filed a petition for discretionary review with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, records show.
Justice RGV believes the investigation and reward are retaliation for publishing the jailhouse video, which occurred less than a week before the Democratic primary.
The Cameron County Sheriff’s Office, however, alleges the publication of the video is a misuse of official information and breach of computer security, and investigators say in the social media post that they are pursuing felony charges.
The implications of those charges are real to Justice RGV, who believes even if they are arrested, they’ll beat the charges.
“I think that when you’re right, you need to be willing to fight and be willing to defend your principles,” Justice RGV said. “To me, this is a matter of principle.”
On Thursday, Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz told The Brownsville Herald that the question about whether anonymously operated Facebook pages qualify for the same whistleblower protections as traditional media hasn’t been answered.
“Our inclination is to say that it isn’t,” Saenz told the newspaper, adding that his office did not find any case law or opinions about the matter.
Justice RGV pushed back at that assertion, citing a Supreme Court ruling called McIntyre vs. the Ohio Election Commission, which they say protects anonymous speech. That ruling centers on a case regarding anonymous campaign literature.
Nonetheless, the Facebook page says it may consider its legal options.
“If they do find us out, they are not just going to be able to dismiss the charge,” Justice RGV said, alleging there’s a pattern of retaliation against RGV whistleblowers. “As soon as that case is dismissed, we are moving to federal court.”
When asked about the motivation for publishing the video leaked to them, they said the Rio Grande Valley has a history of corruption from sheriff’s to judges to district attorneys to politicians and to law enforcement officers being arrested and going to prison once federal authorities step in.
“There are systematic abuses down here that people just, like, accept it as the way it is,” Justice RGV said.
The Facebook page also said that includes retaliation for blowing the whistle on abuse.
RGV Justice pointed to the city of Mercedes, citing the arrest of Israel Coronado, a political activist there who is running for mayor. Coronado has alleged his December arrest after he left city hall during a meeting in September was politically motivated.
He was the fifth person arrested in relation to a Sept. 17 city meeting where the Mercedes Police Department prohibited members of the public — and, briefly, local media — from entering a public meeting.
Coronado had been charged with disrupting a public meeting.
The Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office did not indict Coronado.
“At the end of the day, they want to humiliate the person and take a mugshot and parade them in the media and teach them a lesson,” Justice RGV said.
As for the jailhouse video, the Facebook page said it published the video — and created the page — because it doesn’t believe traditional media is doing enough to hold local government accountable.
“One of the reasons that I thought this was important is because I think that local media is failing people,” RGV Justice said. “I think that as we transition into more TV and quick online content, I think local media is being lazy about investigating local issues and they are failing the community.”
As for whether RGV Justice has been approached by any law enforcement officials over the video yet, they said no.