Hispanic Chamber funding request expected

Odessa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce officials are expected to request a renewal of their contract with the city next week after public payments to the organization ended in May.

But the chamber, a nonprofit without a permanent leader or full board, faces an uphill struggle in convincing the ODC to give the organization more public money.

ODC President Betsy Triplett-Hurt recently told the Odessa American that the ODC board expects the Hispanic Chamber “to prove it has stability and qualified people” first. And a new board member of the Hispanic Chamber, chiropractor Ben Quiroz, said it will take time to right the organization.

Interim City Attorney Gary Landers said the officials of the Hispanic Chamber, which was funded through the Odessa Development Corporation, sought the meeting planned for 1 p.m. June 28, to explain the circumstances surrounding the abrupt removal of Hispanic Chamber leaders more than three months ago.

The meeting next week will be the first public account by the Hispanic Chamber’s Interim CEO Ben Rubio after self-reporting that there might have been “misconduct” by past leaders who managed public money. At multiple ODC meetings, including June 14, Rubio asked board members for more time.

But Landers said public spending the Hispanic Chamber has shown the city “is in balance” and did not prompt any concern from the city’s finance department. City leaders had tasked Landers with a review of the Hispanic Chamber and negotiating a new contract.

“I’m satisfied that all the money has been accounted for, as far as the public money that went to ODC,” Landers said. “The dollars are there. Now there’s a question of during the time period before the change, the prior staff may have spent dollars out of account A that they should have spent out of account B.”

But the Hispanic Chamber reported restoring that money, which was a small sum, to the public account, Landers said. He said the same accounting firm the city uses had reviewed the expenditures.

“I’m not even sure it’s hundreds” of dollars, Landers said.

Landers said “there’s a pending request” for the ODC to discuss the Hispanic Chamber behind closed doors so that Rubio, and possibly his lawyer, can discuss “the possibility of possible criminal charges or possible fraud by the prior situation.”

“But I’m thinking through that now and my current thought is, all of that may be true but that’s for the Hispanic Chamber to take care of,” Landers said, adding he would be willing to consult with the organization.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Rubio refused to comment and hung up, complaining about previous coverage in a subsequent text message.

“There’s details that I think Ben wants to share with the ODC because he feels like maybe they will get the rest of the story, the whole picture, and they’ll realize that Ben and the new members have done a good job and they deserve to get the contract renewal,” Landers said.

The ODC had requested more than an explanation, though.

The ODC wanted proof of stable leadership but also detailed information from the organization. The ODC board asked for a third-party audit, a copy of the organization’s bylaws and policies, and an explanation of any relationship between the city-funded nonprofit and a charity that lists the same city office as its address.

The Hispanic Chamber has not provided the city with the third-party audit. It had been the only organization funded by the ODC that didn’t get independent audits. But Landers said no matter what, the organization will still be subject to the same city review of public expenditures as other groups.

Former CEO Price Arredondo has denied any wrongdoing. In an early April interview, Arredondo said the possible “misconduct” Hispanic Chamber officials pointed to could relate to purchases he made during his two-month tenure of what he described as office supplies: tables, chairs, two computers and a printer. Arredondo said ODC funds were used for a portion of those purchases, which he believed to be proper.

“All that stuff was under $3,000,” Arredondo said at the time, adding most would have come from other Hispanic Chamber revenue.

He also contended the purchases were not the true reason for his firing.

Arredondo was removed on March 8 by a group of other members, 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. The members behind the ouster included District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales.

Concerned by the upheaval, the ODC responded by moving to terminate the Hispanic Chamber’s contract with the city. In recent years, beginning before Arredondo’s tenure, the Hispanic Chamber faced repeated controversy that included poor accounting, a lack of transparency and a struggle to document results on public money invested.

Public funds budgeted for the Hispanic Chamber this year totaled more than $305,000. That included about $167,000 for the Mexico Initiative, which lapsed at the end of March.

Earlier this month, the Hispanic Chamber missed a deadline to request more funding from the city. Now, as the ODC prepares for the coming fiscal year, the Hispanic Chamber is not included in a draft of the plan meant to guide the board’s work.

“Obviously there was some kind of a problem, but I had no idea how long it would take to fix it,” Landers said. “Well [Ben Rubio] fixed the money right away. Based on that one action, Ben got my respect. He stepped up. He took care of that. That is job one. That is my main concern. So I appreciate that, but that doesn’t fix his board. Now he’s actually got a tougher job, and that’s getting people who are willing to step up and say, ‘You know, I’ll help you’.”

Quiroz, the new Hispanic Chamber volunteer who also serves as an elected representative of the Ector County Hospital District, said he accepted an invitation from the organization to become a board member.

“It’s struggling, and I thought that I might be able to help guide that thing in the right direction, so I decided to join their leadership a couple of weeks ago to see if I could help solve their problems,” said Quiroz, who became a member of the Hispanic Chamber around 2007.

So far, Quiroz said, he does not have a detailed understanding of the organization’s finances and does not know details about the previous controversy with past leaders. But he said he sees the value in the organizations potential to provide networking for the Hispanic business community and exposure for new businesses. And said he believed the leadership training he received after winning his hospital board seat would be useful.

“I’m wanting to bring some of that experience over to the Hispanic Chamber, but it seems like it’s going to take a bit of time to get that thing pointed in the right direction,” Quiroz said.