Breach of critical info unlikely: El Paso County Commissioner Willie Gandara …

It is unlikely that El Paso County Commissioner Willie Gandara Jr. had access to sensitive law-enforcement information about drug trafficking in the area despite holding political office.

Gandara remains jailed with no bond following his arrest by DEA agents Wednesday night after a grand jury indicted him on federal marijuana-trafficking charges.

Gandara, 37, has been a commissioner since 2008 and is running for the Texas House District 75 seat. Gandara’s lawyer has said his client is innocent.

“As a county commissioner, we have a bit more access to information than the everyday man on the street,” Commissioner Dan Haggerty said Friday.

“We can certainly pick up our phone and call the sheriff or Mr. (Bill) Ellis, who is the sheriff’s assistant, and they will call us back immediately. They would give us the answer to almost any and all questions.”

But any answer would only be “public information that would be available to anyone else,” Haggerty said.

County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal and other county officials said commissioners cannot access the computer system used by prosecutors and law-enforcement officers.

Sheriff Richard Wiles said the chances that Gandara got inside information on drug investigations was “none.”

“First of all, as a separate elected official, I’m not obligated to report to the Commissioners Court at all,” Wiles said. “And even when I worked as (El Paso) police chief with the city manager, I wouldn’t disclose information about

investigations because it could compromise the investigation.”

Wiles first met Gandara years ago when they both attended Sul Ross State University, where Gandara earned a master’s degree in public administration.

Wiles said that he was elected sheriff the same year that Gandara became a county commissioner but that they are not friends. Wiles said Gandara has never called him asking for any type of information.

“He never really communicated with me,” Wiles said.

He reiterated that Gandara is innocent until proven guilty.

“The thing is, the federal government when it typically seek indictments, they really do a thorough job of gathering evidence when they present it to a grand jury,” Wiles said. “Clearly, they are very serious charges. It’s a shame that someone in his position would place himself in a position to be indicted. It’s not a good thing for our county.”

The Sheriff’s Office and El Paso Police Department both had officers in the DEA-lead task force that investigated Gandara, who is listed as the owner of Socorro Iron Metal.

The federal indictment alleges that Gandara was nicknamed the “Godfather” and conspired to distribute more than 110 pounds of marijuana and that the drugs would be stored for distribution at a property the commissioner owned on Coker Road in his hometown of Socorro. Prosecutors allege the scheme had been running since November 2010.

As part of the investigation, federal agents this week also searched Commissioner Gandara’s office at the County Courthouse.

Federal agents arrested another man, Juan Canales, 50, of San Elizario.

County Courthouse sources said Canales was Gandara’s driver and was often at the commissioner’s office. Canales was also in a Gandara family photo taken two years ago by the El Paso Times.

A campaign finance report filed last month lists a donation to Gandara from Juan Canales of San Elizario. The report stated the donation on Dec. 10 was an in-kind contribution of “music/band for an event” worth $1,500.

The document lists Canales as a general manager at SMG Transports, a trucking company whose mailing address is that of Gandara’s home on Thunder Road.

State records show that the manager and registered agent for SMG Transports is Guillermo Gandara, but it is unclear if it refers to Gandara or his father, Guillermo “Willie” Gandara Sr.

Canales is also jailed with no bond, which is common for defendants in federal drug-trafficking cases.

Whether Gandara Jr. and Canales are given bond will be determined by a U.S. magistrate judge at a detention hearing on Tuesday.

Daniel Borunda may be reached at [email protected]; 546-6102.

Times reporter Cindy Ramirez contributed to this report.

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