Victoria County’s facilities manager recalls going to County Judge Ben Zeller to advise against hiring a single contractor for airport work in the days after Hurricane Harvey.
“I questioned the process,” said Kelly Hubert, who oversees capital improvement and maintenance of county buildings and property.
Because he was appointed by the commissioners court, Hubert said, he reports only to the county’s judge and commissioners.
However, that conversation with Zeller immediately prompted a confrontational phone call from Joyce Dean, then the county’s director of administrative services. She questioned strongly why he “had gone around her back,” Hubert said.
“She goes to the church I go to and has done a lot of good stuff for the county, but she can be a jerk,” Hubert said of Dean’s management style, which he described as “direct” and even “pushy.”
Dean is now at the center of a controversy engulfing the county about how officials spent Harvey recovery money. Until her resignation in February, Dean served as project manager for repairs to Harvey-damaged buildings at the Victoria Regional Airport.
Dean declined to answer questions for this story.
During Dean’s almost 25-year career in county government that spanned the terms of three county judges, she came to be known as “the fifth commissioner,” a nickname that spoke to her considerable behind-the-scenes influence with both elected and appointed officials, some county officials said. In that position, Dean was publicly accused twice of abusing her power: by a Texas Rangers investigation that resulted in her arrest for theft but ended with dismissed charges and by a Victoria defense attorney who said Dean used her influence to tip the scales of a custody battle.
“Sometimes when you are given more and more authority, the lines become blurred on what you can and cannot do,” said Precinct 3 County Commissioner Gary Burns.
After Dean’s resignation, some airport commissioners began questioning the spending of $2.68 million of Hurricane Harvey recovery money there and why the airport manager was not in charge of the work.
About $2.1 million of that went to the Virtus Group, a Kansas company now known as Commercial Restoration Company that was tasked with completing the work. Victoria County commissioners hired Virtus without seeking bids, citing an emergency exemption.
Company officials also have declined to comment.
Some Victoria business owners have criticized a lack of documentation and discussion for the work done by Virtus, prompting requests for a forensic task force to examine dealings with the company.
Because payment for that project was to be provided by the county’s insurance, Dean oversaw the project, Hubert said.
Hired in 1994 as the county’s first “personnel manager,” Dean accumulated numerous duties over decades that included serving as a grant writer and adviser to the commissioners court.
Former County Judge Helen Walker, elected in 1990, said Dean’s success was partly because of a driven personality and constant willingness to take on more work.
Former County Judge Don Pozzi, elected in 2002, agreed, describing Dean as “very motivated” and skilled with grant writing.
During Pozzi’s time in office, Dean began writing grants and serving as an adviser to the judge, he said. When Pozzi left office in 2014, Dean had been promoted to her current office of director of administrative services, which required her to continue her duties with human resources, he said.
The change in title also meant Dean helped Pozzi with general “day-to-day problems” that the county faced, serving as a “research guide” and adviser during “many, many” interviews for various positions, Pozzi said.
“We would both look into something and then discuss it,” he said
Burns recalled Zeller had initially vowed to remove Dean from her position when campaigning for office. Zeller, first elected in 2014, said he did so in part because although he found Dean a valuable resource, he initially had questions about her “high” salary.
“However, after taking office, I saw that her responsibilities went far beyond human resources,” he said.
“Sometimes in an election you say stuff that sounds good,” Burns said. “But when you get in, it’s really off-base. You’re faced with reality. It’s real common.”
For one, Burns said, Dean obtained millions of dollars in grants for the county, bringing in vital resources as no one had previously been able to do.
Commissioners also came to rely on Dean’s knowledge of the inner workings of county government and its myriad employees, the commissioner said.
“She knew the history on every department. When you’ve been here a while, you do know the history (of the county government), and you are very familiar with positions and personalities,” Burns said. “That was nice to have. That was her strong point.”
And Dean applied that knowledge in making budget recommendations for various county departments to commissioners, sometimes to the detriment of the other directors and county offices, including the Victoria County District Attorney’s Office, Burns said. The insight she offered to commissioners reinforced her as an invaluable asset to commissioners, Burns said.
It also was one reason she earned the nickname of the “fifth commissioner,” Burns said.
“You took everything as gospel. Her perception of a person or what was going on, sometimes it wasn’t questioned. It was accepted. And she was very good. God-dang, she could figure out stuff,” Burns said.
After Dean’s 2018 arrest for theft by a public servant following a Texas Rangers investigation, then-District Attorney Steve Tyler supported in court the dismissal of her charges even though he was tasked with prosecuting the case. According to the Rangers’ report, Tyler had not offered a written response about the investigation for two years and seven months.
Friday, Tyler said he had to move to dismiss Dean’s case in his final days in office because the evidence was inadequate. He also said his action was not motivated by any connection to Dean, who he said had no undue influence over his office’s budget. The district attorney is a separate elected office, but its budget is set by the county commissioners.
The unusual series of events surrounding Dean have led some in the community to question why the county commissioners kept her employed, let alone put her in charge of the Harvey work. Former Victoria Mayor Paul Polasek asked the question directly to commissioners during the citizens comment portion of their meeting Monday.
“With respect to the issue at the airport, who put Joyce Dean in charge of all that?” Polasek asked. “Who gave her sole discretion to manage that entire project?”
Zeller answered, “That would be Commissioners Court.” But Burns immediately interjected that Zeller and Dean were the sole people managing it. County commissioner Clint Ives then responded that the project fell within Dean’s job description as director of administrative services.
Polasek told the commissioners he was asking because he had been troubled for a long time by the commissioners’ inaction regarding the Texas Rangers’ investigation.
“At what point did y’all know about this?” he asked, holding a copy of the Rangers’ report.
The commissioners did not answer his question during the meeting.
Some airport commissioners also are asking why the county used the same company, Virtus, to handle the initial assessment of hurricane damages and then the repairs. A clear dividing line would have helped the county track the project better and hold those doing the repairs more accountable, they say.
Facilities manager Hubert said hiring a single company had some advantages, but the same question was why he suggested to Zeller that splitting the work could be cheaper for taxpayers.
“Maybe some other contractor could have done the remodeling at a better price,” he said.
“I think we’re missing something,” Brian Flores said early Saturday morning as he finished setting up a car wash benefit for 6-year-old Joe Pena, who was hit by a stray bullet on the Fourth of July.
Joe looked up at Flores with a grin. “Cars?” he said, laughing.
The first car of the day showed up at Advance Auto Parts on East Rio Grande Street less than five minutes later – 15 minutes before the fundraiser was even scheduled to start.
Gary Thornbury, the car’s owner, said he read about the fundraiser in the paper and stopped by “for the boy.”
Cars arrived in droves until 5 p.m. At one point, eight drivers had lined up waiting for a wash in the scalding heat.
“It has been nonstop,” Flores said.
By the end of the day, $1,230 had been raised to help cover Joe’s medical expenses.
Joe, who is about to start first grade, played with his sisters in the shade of a pop-up tent, thanked people for donations and cheerfully wished them a swell day alongside his mother, Ashley Gonzales.
“It is like twenty-hundred people care,” Joe said about those who came out to support him.
After the Victoria boy underwent surgery in San Antonio to have the .45-caliber slug removed from his right forearm, his mom worried the full-arm cast he was required to wear would slow him down.
“That is the one thing I was afraid of, but he still gets out, runs and plays with his siblings,” Gonzales said.
The slug was sent to Corpus Christi for tests, but results are pending, Lauren Meaux, a spokeswoman for the Victoria Police Department said Friday. There were no new leads in the ongoing investigation, she said.
All fundraiser volunteers hailed from different car clubs in the region, like Rudy Vargas Jr., the president of Heaven Scent Car Club, who drove from Yorktown to help Flores.
“Brian is my buddy,” he said. “We’ve been low-riding since we were kids, and we have each other’s back. For me personally, too, giving back is what God called us to do.”
Vargas Jr. started his Christian-based car club after spending 11 years in prison. He said serving others has helped him turn his life around, and supporting other clubs in their charitable endeavors is a big part of car club culture.
Jesus Zuniga, president of Klean Out Kustoms Car Club, agreed.
“Some people have family that they’ve made, and some people have family that they make,” he said. “We’re like a car family; we have to stick together. And when something like this goes down, we have to have show support.”
Near the end of the fundraiser, Gonzales said she was humbled to see the volunteers and drivers support her son through a difficult time.
“It is awesome to know people still have good hearts,” she said. “You don’t get reminded of that very often.”
Marcus Rocha sat in the shade Friday afternoon at a bus stop on North Navarro Street and waited with his 12-year-old son for a ride home from a hot, unsuccessful day of trying to find help.
Born with Usher Syndrome, Rocha is legally blind and partially deaf. His disabilities do not confine or define his life, but when two men asked if he was blind as he stood alone at a bus stop on Lova Drive last weekend, he said a part of him wishes he had replied no.
“Next thing you know, he pulled out a gun and hit me real hard, like (as if to say), ‘Don’t move,’ and took everything out of my front pocket,” he said. “Then another man came up from behind and ripped my wallet out of my back pocket.”
The two men robbed Rocha at gunpoint about 8 a.m. on Aug. 3, according to a report from the Victoria Police Department. The offenders could only be described to police as heavyset with Hispanic accents, Victoria police said.
The men clipped the 39-year-old single parent in his right eye with a handgun and took everything out of his pockets, including his wallet, which held his Social Security card, Texas identification card, debit cards and U.S. currency. He said he had just withdrawn the cash to pay his rent and phone bill. He had planned to buy his son back-to-school clothes with whatever was left over.
Rocha spent all of last week trying to recuperate his losses. A local church was able to give him $75 toward rent, his case worker helped him get a new bus pass and he was able to have his food stamp card replaced. But a number of local resource centers turned him away due to sparse funds, he said.
“I called a lot of people – churches and a lot of nonprofits – and they said, ‘We can’t do this or we can’t do that,’” he said. “They have a lot of help for single women or abused women, but I am a disabled person, and I am not asking for someone to do everything for me. Any little thing helps, and if you can’t help me, just refer me to someone who maybe can.”
Rocha has struggled at times as a single parent, he said.
“I’ve been raising my son on my own since he was 2 weeks old. Trying to get help – it is difficult, especially ’cause I’m disabled,” he said. “My mom used to help me, but she passed away going on four years ago.”
Buses are a source of independence for Rocha, who has ridden them around town every day and never felt unsafe.
“I’ve been riding the bus since I was old enough to move around,” he said. “Even though I am disabled, I don’t let that keep me home. I am an independent person.”
Rocha went home after the robbery to his son, who called 911.
As of Friday, there have been no arrests or updates in the ongoing investigation, said Lauren Meaux, a spokeswoman with the Victoria Police Department.
A robbery can be charged as an aggravated robbery if a disabled person is put in fear of imminent bodily injury or death, according to the Texas Penal Code. The crime is a first-degree felony and carries a sentence of five to 99 years or life in prison with a $10,000 fine.
Despite how difficult finding resources has been, Rocha said he will not be held back because of what was stolen from him.
“I’m not staying home because two people robbed me,” he said. “I got to go, gotta keep living and can’t just be stuck at home scared. I don’t want other people out here who are disabled to be afraid and let that fear hold them down.”
This story was updated Aug. 13, 2019 to correct items stolen.