McALLEN – Only three months ago, a sitting member of Congress signed a “modified” contingency fee contract to represent Hidalgo County in a construction defect lawsuit.
The contract, which was obtained from the Texas Comptroller’s Office, shows U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat representing Texas’ 15th Congressional District, signed the contract on Dec. 7, 2018, entitling him to 25 percent of the total amount of attorney’s fees recovered from the case.
The House Ethics Manual clearly states members “are prohibited from engaging in professions that provide services involving a fiduciary relationship, including the practice of law.”
However, according to a spokesperson for Gonzalez, all of the work the congressman did on the case was performed before he took office in 2017. The possible financial yield of the lawsuit remains up in the air, as court records show the litigation is still active.
By contrast, all of Gonzalez' cases in federal court have been closed. In his last open federal case, he submitted a notice of settlement on Oct. 31, 2016 - about a week before the election that sent him to Congress.
The political career of Gonzalez moved from theory to practice on Nov. 8, 2016, when he defeated his Republican opponent by nearly 20 points to claim the seat.
Two weeks earlier, Gonzalez signed a client-attorney employee contract with Hidalgo County on Oct. 25, 2016, which does have a provision on the last page stating that if he’s elected, “he will no longer provide any legal services” to the county.
Records show the comptroller’s office never approved the 2016 contract but that the document was green-lighted by the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court, paving the way for a lawsuit to be filed on Dec. 28, 2016 – just days before Gonzalez took office.
“Prior to his service in Congress, Vicente Gonzalez practiced law for 20 years in Texas following the highest levels of ethics,” said Tom Rayfield, an ethics attorney advising Gonzalez. “Before being sworn in … Gonzalez was released of his fiduciary duty … and all cases associated with the Law Office of V. Gonzalez & Associates.”
Prior to taking office, Rayfield says Gonzalez sought guidance from an ethics lawyer, as well as the House Ethics Committee, to ensure he properly disposed of all cases.
While the 2016 contract appears to absolve Gonzalez, the 2018 contract on file with the Comptroller’s Office fails to make any references to releasing the congressman of his fiduciary duty.
In fact, the very first paragraph of the current contract states that it is a “modification” of the 2016 contract and that “this document serves to supersede that agreement.”
The 2016 contract was provided by Rayfield.
Rayfield says the second agreement, which does state that it in no way diminishes the attorney-client relationship created by the previous agreement, cannot be interpreted without reading the first agreement.
“The second agreement is the continuation of an old contract entered into prior to (Gonzalez) serving in Congress,” Rayfield said. “This is not a new agreement. And his relationship to this agreement is not changed by this new document.
“This is not new business that Gonzalez involved himself in after being elected to Congress.”
Rayfield also said that “out of an abundance of caution,” Gonzalez has reported “this situation” to the House Ethics Committee seeking appropriate guidance.
So, with 25 percent of the fees on the line, the question remains on how much work Gonzalez performed on the case in the short span between signing the first contract and taking office.
According to Rayfield, Gonzalez “labored hard” on the case, and other cases, right up until he was sworn in.
Rayfield, however, did not respond to a request for the congressman’s time and expense records, which Texas law requires Gonzalez to keep.
The lead attorney working the lawsuit, which seeks damages for alleged defects in the construction of the county’s Juvenile Justice Center, offered a more detail accounting of the congressman’s labor.
The signatures of two other attorneys are present on both the first and modified contract, Kathryn Snapka, founder of The Snapka Law Firm in Corpus Christi, and Felipe Garcia, the brother of former Hidalgo County judge Ramon Garcia.
According to Snapka, Gonzalez was involved in the investigation and preparation for prosecution of the case.
“He and I together made inspections of the roof and the interior of the center, which was experiencing issues because of the construction defects,” Snapka said. “Congressman Gonzalez has done no work on the case since the lawsuit was filed.”
Since Jan. 1, 2017, Snapka says her office has acted as lead counsel, with Felipe Garcia assisting locally.
According to the 2016 contract, Snapka was put in charge of all the heavy lifting, including advancing expenses, entitling her firm to 50 percent of the fees, while Gonzalez and Felipe Garcia were regulated to “communicating with the client” and “legal research.”
When Felipe Garcia signed the first contract, his brother, Ramon, was still the county judge.
To date, all of the county’s filings in the case have been submitted by Snapka’s firm and are completely free of Gonzalez’s signature.
Felipe Garcia’s signature is likewise absent from the county’s petitions.
Felipe Garcia did not return a request for comment.
The Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court declined to comment.