**UPDATED FROM PRINT VERSION**
By Kathi Bliss
An overflow crowd was stunned on Tuesday night when accusations surfaced that members of the Martindale City Council were attempting to cover up accusations that bookkeeper Lynnette Ruiz had embezzled nearly $20,000 from the City of Martindale during her employment.
Though the Martindale City Council Chambers are designed to hold a gallery of around 30, more than 100 people gathered for Tuesday night’s regular meeting to show their support of Police Chief Harry Jeurgins, whose job the community believed to be in jeopardy, as the evening’s agenda included an item that would offer a long-term contract to another individual as the police chief.
Martindale resident Carlton Carl broke the news of investigation during the “Public Comments” section of the meeting, when many members took the microphone to lambast the seated Mayor, and several members of the Council.
“This lame duck decision was apparently retribution against… Jeurgens,” Carl said. “For what? For doing his job. He properly reported to the District Attorney compelling evidence that a city employee had possibly embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from the City Treasury – in other words from every taxpaying citizen.”
Carl’s revelation, confirmed by way of the District Attorney’s Office confirming that an arrest warrant for Theft by a Public Servant had been issued for Ruiz, drew stunned gasps from several members of the gallery, most of which seem to have been unaware of the ongoing investigation.
Carl went on to accuse Mayor Randy Bunker and three other councilmembers of withholding the information from the community, and using their positions to punish Jeurgens for bringing the accusations to light.
Ren Haynes, who had to be called down several times by both Bunker and Jeurgens, used his three minutes to berate the Council for what he called their “attempts to cover it up,” saying the cover-up was to keep the council from looking bad in their final weeks at the dais.
Bunker, along with City Attorney Floyd Akers responded to Haynes’ comments, noting that the city cannot comment in open session on personnel matters and that there have not been formal charges filed; it is unclear whether Ruiz is still employed by the City on an administrative leave, or if she has been terminated.
After Haynes’ tirade, Bunker attempted to shut down the public commenting section of the meeting, having not yet heard from several members of the gallery that signed up to speak on Jeurgens’ behalf. Akers advised him to allow the speakers to have their time; some members of the gallery reported after the meeting that though they had signed up, they were not given the opportunity to speak. Records of who did sign up were not available at press time.
On Friday morning, Ruiz turned herself in to the Caldwell County Jail. The accompanying affidavit for her arrest indicates that the investigation into the theft charges showed that she allegedly made 22 unauthorized transfers into her personal bank account, 11 from the General Fund and 11 from the Wastewater Treatment Services account.
The affidavit also indicates that Bunker and Mayor Pro Tem Ernest Painter had sent a letter to First Lockhart National Bank authorizing her access to the accounts. While she did not have signatory authority, the online access did give her the authorization to make electronic transfers. She oversaw all City of Martindale payroll, including her own, Painter said in an interview with investigators.
Further, Bunker confirmed in his interview with investigators, that no oversight measures were in place, and Ruiz had free access to make the transfers, without countermeasures in place to safeguard against such a theft.
Sources say that Ruiz is also facing criminal charges in Hays County, for allegedly stealing from an employer there.
Ultimately, a criminal prosecution against Ruiz, if there are to be any, will be determined by the Caldwell County Grand Jury, who will determine later this spring if sufficient evidence is in place to prosecute her for the alleged theft. She could face up to a third-degree felony, punishable by a term of 2-10 years in the Texas Department of Corrections, with fines up to $10,000.
Painter said after the meeting that the Council’s consideration of hiring a new chief of police was unrelated to the investigation into Ruiz’s possible theft, and Jeurgens’ handling of the situation. Painter, along with Councilmembers Robert Purcell and David Aguilar are the four “lame ducks” referred to by Carl, and targeted by many of the public commenters for ire connected to their service.
Long plagued by financial woes, the City of Martindale recently hired a forensic accountant, possibly to help sort any losses or other misappropriations connected to the allegations against Ruiz. They continue to struggle to pay a massive penalty amassed by the State of Texas connected with a long-standing debt for over-collection of traffic fines.
The Post-Register will continue to follow this story and provide updates as they become available.