Hispanic Chamber says investigation underway

The head of the Odessa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said there is an “investigation ongoing to determine if any misconduct was done by past leadership” at a Thursday afternoon press conference, following the city’s move to cut off public funding for the long-struggling organization about week earlier.

But Ben Rubio, who said he is the interim CEO and interim chair of the organization, declined to say what that investigation is about or even who is conducting it.

“I ask the community to be patient with us during this investigation and promise to release the findings once the investigation wraps,” Rubio told reporters during the press conference, which was at his parents’ house in Odessa.

Rubio was appointed to his post on March 8 after the abrupt removal of his predecessor, CEO Price Arredondo.

The leadership shake-up at the Hispanic Chamber, which followed a series of controversies in recent years, prompted the city to cut off public funds for the organization amid an inquiry that includes a request for an audit. Public funds budgeted for the Hispanic Chamber this year totaled more than $305,000, paid in monthly installments.

Arredondo’s job was funded by the city through the Odessa Development Corporation, where the Hispanic Chamber gets most of its money. But Rubio said he is “receiving zero compensation” for his work with the chamber.

Rubio declined to answer questions, citing the advice of his personal attorney. Those questions included why Rubio’s personal attorney advised him not to answer questions about chamber matters.

Meanwhile, the ODC has requested a third-party audit of the Hispanic Chamber for at least the past fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, among other information including details of the organization’s rules and leadership structure, ODC President Betsy Triplett-Hurt said.

Told of Rubio’s comments, Triplett-Hurt said she did not know what the misconduct he referred to could be.

But Arredondo says it could be about purchases for the chamber he made during his two month tenure, which included 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, but most would have come from other Hispanic Chamber revenue. “. . . I’m lost in terms of what the beef is about, or the concern, or what the investigation is.”

Triplett-Hurt said an audit should answer that and other questions about the chamber, which extend before Arredondo’s hiring in January.

“Specifically about the furniture, we don’t know,” Triplett-Hurt said. “We don’t know how they spent their money, because we don’t have an audit to show how things have been spent.”

Rubio declined to comment about the purchases.

Arredondo’s removal came just before he was about to propose changes to the organization at an ODC meeting, which would have included doing away with a controversial publicly funded job heading a troubled effort to build business ties with Mexico called the Mexico Initiative. Arredondo said he believes he was pushed out because of his efforts to reform the organization.

New board members said they were also pushed out during the same meeting by Hispanic Chamber officials including Rubio and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales.

Rubio pushed back at accounts of Arredondo and former board members.

“There is no new board at the Odessa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce,” Rubio said. “And we never ousted or bullied any current or past board members. Board members resigned under their own free will.”

Gonzales was present for the Thursday press conference, saying he came to support the organization. Other attendees included other Hispanic Chamber board members and Raymond Chavez, who until recently was paid to head the Mexico Initiative.

Chavez was allotted $58,000 for six months of work intended as a transition while the Hispanic Chamber found professional leadership for the effort that has struggled since Chavez founded it in 2014. His salary expired at the end of March.

But terms of the Hispanic Chamber’s contract with the city call for the organization to keep getting public money for about two months after the council terminated the agreement on March 27.

The organization could get another chance to request more money.

Rubio, a past chair of the Hispanic Chamber, said his goal as the new leader was to “find strong leadership that could set a great foundation for a steady organization but also keep in mind the community’s needs in education, economic opportunities and housing.”