Hispanic Chamber absent amid scrutiny

Odessa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce officials had their first chance to answer questions of a city oversight board since city officials moved to cut off public funding for the struggling organization in response to the abrupt ouster of its leaders and concern about public spending.

They didn’t take it on Thursday. And questions still linger about the turmoil with the Hispanic Chamber, whose own leader announced an investigation into possible “misconduct” by past leadership. The organization in recent years already faced scrutiny related to poor management and a struggle showing results for the public money that makes up most of its budget.

Hispanic Chamber CEO and chair Ben Rubio was scheduled to appear before the Odessa Development Corporation on Thursday. Afterwards, Rubio said in a text message that he missed the meeting because of “personal reasons, but it was expected that I wouldn’t be there.”

Not by the ODC board.

“Under the circumstances, I think it would have been really important to have someone here to talk to us,” ODC board member Melanie Hollmann said. “Just to tell us anything.”

A week ago, Rubio told reporters about the investigation into possible misconduct by past leaders, but he declined to elaborate on what that could be. Rubio did promise the Hispanic Chamber’s cooperation with the city, which now seeks detailed financial information.

Public funds budgeted for the Hispanic Chamber this year totaled more than $305,000.

Interim City Attorney Gary Landers, who has been investigating the Hispanic Chamber on behalf of the city and negotiating a new contract, said officials of the nonprofit organization may have missed the meeting because they were still trying to gather information requested through him about two weeks ago.

That information included an independent audit, the bylaws of the organization, answers to questions about the recent shakeup and the current leadership structure, and an explanation of any relationship between the city-funded Hispanic Chamber and a charity that lists the same city office as its address.

Landers said he was optimistic that his work “to bring us out of this wilderness of confusion” would yield answers.

Meanwhile, ODC board members complained Thursday that a monthly financial report was confusing and appeared inaccurate. ODC board member Ted Tuminowski described the report as “evidence of why we need to have an audit.”

Landers said he did not know enough to answer the ODC’s questions about the Hispanic Chamber.

“I don’t have anything that tells me there is money missing,” Landers said. “I just have an inability to understand the financial reports we’ve been provided. And so that might indicate a problem or it might not.”

ODC board members asked if the city can investigate the Hispanic Chamber’s spending of public money of the organization. Landers said they can and the organization would already be required to turn over unspent funds at the end of the contract. That contract will likely end before the Hispanic Chamber the independent audit is finished, Landers said.

Per the terms of the Hispanic Chamber’s contract with the city, the organization is still set to keep getting public money through late May. Rubio said the charity has no financial connection to the city-funded organization.

ODC President Betsy Triplett-Hurt said the city has never required an independent audit of the Hispanic Chamber, like the city board does of every other organization it funds.

The Hispanic Chamber’s former CEO Price Arredondo, who has denied any wrongdoing, was fired on March 8. New board members said they were pushed out at the same meeting, when Rubio was also appointed.

Arredondo’s ouster came just before he was set to present a proposal to the ODC for changes to the Hispanic Chamber that would have included ending the paid position heading the Mexico Initiative, an effort to build business ties with Mexico.

Funding for the job managing the Mexico Initiative ceased this month. It had been filled by Raymond Chavez, who founded the effort in 2014. Since then, the Hispanic Chamber struggled to document progress and faced criticism of poor management.

But for this fiscal year, the city had approved paying Chavez about $58,000 to keep managing the project for six months while the Hispanic Chamber sought professional leadership.

Rubio, who said he is not being paid in his role leading the Hispanic Chamber, said that the organization is still working to provide the information city officials are seeking and that “communication has been great with Mr. Gary Landers.”