The Austin Chronicle

Precinct 2 Constables

Hope vs. (bitter) experience

By Jordan Smith, February 22, 2008, News

If you've stumbled unaware into our online reader forums lately, you already know that the Democratic primary race for Travis County Constable Precinct 2 has become a nasty fight between Adan Ballesteros and Paul Labuda, competing to face Republican incumbent Bob Vann in November. The online criticism, in all directions, has grown from flame war to all-out assault – histrionic critiques of each candidate's qualifications and especially their characters. Labuda is blasted as an inexperienced dolt, while Ballesteros' termination from the Texas Department of Public Safety nearly a decade ago has provided fuel for allegations that he is either corrupt or in fact a criminal. Disregarding the more inflammatory personal attacks, each candidate has his own strengths and weaknesses and his own particular vision of what the constabulary should be doing to serve county residents.

The constable's office is akin to a judicial-branch cop shop – serving civil process and misdemeanor criminal warrants and tracking down school truants; it's an underappreciated but necessary job. The candidates for Precinct 2 each would like to see the statutory mission expanded; both envision an office more involved in the community. There the similarities end.

Thirty-six-year-old Paul Labuda's background is in the tech industry. He spent seven years at Dell before moving into network administration; he now works for a small Austin software company. He has no law enforcement background but says that doesn't mean he isn't qualified to be a constable. He notes that popular (and unopposed) Precinct 5 Con­stable Bruce Elfant didn't have any law enforcement experience either when he first won the job 15 years ago. In January, Labuda obtained a peace-officer license, according to records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforce­ment Officer Standards and Education. Labu­da says his lack of law enforcement experience is in fact a strength: Precinct 2 needs an overhaul, he says, and his "fresh perspective" offers him the chance to provide the "purest top-down evaluation" of the office. As constable, he would respect the experience of his deputies in daily responsibilities and would focus much of his own attention on raising the profile of the office within the community. He'd like to perform home-security audits for Precinct 2 residents and have his deputies help with school-zone traffic enforcement when possible.

Labuda says he's running primarily because he wants to oust the Republican incumbent – if Travis Co. is to be truly "blue," voters need to erase the red blot in North Austin. Until then, he is short on precise criticism of the office. "I'm the boundless hope that everyone likes to criticize," Labuda concluded, "but enthusiasm can get a lot done."

In contrast, 51-year-old Adan Ballesteros has 27 years of law enforcement experience: He served with the DPS from 1979 until 1998, has worked as a private security trainer, worked for eight years as a lieutenant in the Precinct 2 office he now seeks to manage, and is currently a senior officer in the Precinct 3 office of Constable Richard McCain. Ordinarily, such credentials would make Ballesteros the candidate to beat. However, the circumstances surrounding his termination from DPS in 1998 have called his integrity and his candidacy into question.

According to DPS, Ballesteros, while working as a narcotics investigator in the Valley in the early Nineties, acted without authority to allow several shipments of drugs – including several thousand pounds of cocaine – to be smuggled into Texas without law enforcement interdiction and without DPS authority. The agency sustained five out of six formal complaints about Ballesteros (also including poor investigative techniques and insufficient accountability). Ballesteros appealed his termination but was rejected by the state Public Safety Commission.

Ballesteros insists there is no truth to the DPS allegations. The drug charge, he says, was conjured by a former confidential informant angry that Ballesteros wouldn't help get him out of prison on an unrelated case. At the time the drugs were alleged to have been brought into the country, Ballesteros says, he was working with a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who, as lead officer, would approve any undercover smuggling. Ballesteros insists he played no active role in any unlawful smuggling. He says his DPS supervisors used the bogus information as a way to squeeze him out of the agency, in an illegal retaliation. According to Ballesteros, when he was promoted to lieutenant at the Austin Narcotics Training Center in 1993, he was told by supervisors to fire a female assistant who had filed a sexual-harassment complaint against his predecessor. "Make her miserable," he says he was told. He refused and ran afoul of DPS's old-boy network.

Ballesteros sued DPS for unlawful termination but lost. Federal Magistrate Judge Robert Pitman ruled that Ballesteros had failed to demonstrate a causal connection between the alleged order to fire Wendy Raumaker in 1993 and his termination five years later. Still, there's no clear evidence that Ballesteros ever did anything wrong; in 1998, when the DPS appealed to the Texas Workforce Com­mis­sion for permission to cease paying benefits to Ballesteros, the TWC rejected the appeal, noting that the DPS investigation was both belated and unpersuasive.

Ballesteros points out that if the charges were true, why would he run for office, knowing that all this would come out? He sees the race as a chance to clear his name as well as an opportunity to turn around Precinct 2. (He left the office last fall, under strained circumstances, saying he was again forced out because he'd raised questions about sexual harassment in the office.) Ballesteros says he will ensure "diligent" service and would like to develop a "flexible payment plan" for people who owe money on misdemeanor warrants – a move that he says would help ease jail overcrowding. He'd also like to make the office more community-friendly.

Labuda notes that Vann has already spent nearly $470 in campaign cash on open records from DPS and says he assumes that means Vann is waiting in the wings, ready to attack Ballesteros in the general election campaign. The only chance to change things, he says, is to vote Labuda in the primary: He's a blank slate, he says, and there's nothing Vann can use against him – except, perhaps, that he has no experience at all.

We'll have more coverage on constable races next week.

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