Council

Seen here during a city manager candidate interview on Wednesday morning are, from left, Councilmembers Esther Melendez-Lopez, Jose “Joe” Diaz, Jorge Maldonado and Saulo Bonilla. Tension rose on the dais during a meeting later in the day when Melendez-Lopez, Bonilla and Mayor Arturo Garino called out Maldonado and City Attorney Mike Massee over emails Massee had sent to CBP regarding an Maldonado’s alleged rough treatment by a federal officer.

Nogales City Councilman Jorge Maldonado says he suffered humiliating treatment at the hands of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, who he said handcuffed, pushed and detained him without justification at the Mariposa Port of Entry.

“I told him, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is the way you treat people,’” Maldonado said as he recalled the episode on Sept. 19, which apparently began after the officer accused Maldonado of nearly hitting him with his truck as he drove through the port’s secondary inspection area,

Maldonado said the officer got rough with him as he took him away in cuffs.

“He was shoving me. I said, ‘Guy, I’ve got a bad ankle, I’ve got a brace, I can’t walk this fast. And the guy makes the comment, ‘You use your legs to walk, not your ankles.’”

After about a half-hour of detention, he said, he was told to go home, with no formal accusations made against him,

Maldonado told the NI he is seeking redress through CBP’s headquarters in Washington after the agency’s local leadership didn’t respond to his initial complaint about the incident. But after City Attorney Mike Massee sent an email to a CBP official asking that the agency preserve the video of the incident, and copied it to the city’s other elected officials, Mayor Arturo Garino and two other councilmembers called out Maldonado and Massee during a council meeting on Wednesday evening.

“We should not be placed in a position like this, this council,” Garino said.

“I think what happened was a personal issue, it wasn’t city business,” he continued. “There was no reason why we should have gotten involved and obviously … there was no reason why Mr. Massee should have gotten involved.”

Maldonado responded by saying he had approached Massee “on our own free time, and basically made a comment.”

“I never gave Mr. Massee any direction,” he said. “We talked about what could be done and who to contact and all that.”

When Massee sent the email and cc’d it to the other elected officials, Maldonado said, he was initially surprised – but then glad that Massee was being transparent about it. “The last thing I’m going to do is hide something from anybody,” he said.

Maldonado acknowledged that he asked Massee for legal advice, but said Massee sent the email on his own accord.

“The incident happened. I was not going to just stay quiet with what happened,” Maldonado said. “And Mr. Massee just tried to help.”

Still, he recognized that it was bad policy for Massee to have gotten involved. “You probably should have told me,” Maldonado said to the attorney, “but I never did it to harm you or anybody on the council.”

Councilman Saulo Bonilla thanked Maldonado “for clearing that up with us,” then turned his attention to Massee.

‘Bad optics’

He started by reading the Sept. 21 email Massee sent to the head of CBP’s Tucson Office, Guadalupe Ramirez, making a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that CBP preserve the video of the incident involving Maldonado, requesting the names of other officers who witnessed the incident, and expressing his willingness to talk with the agency’s legal counsel about the matter.

Bonilla then read, in their entirety, a response from Ramirez’s aide that recommended an online process for filing a FOIA request, as well as Massee’s response to that email, in which he said he would “advise my council member accordingly.”

“That is why we are here today,” Bonilla said. “It is the optics of the situation. It looks like Mr. Maldonado asked Mr. Massee to move on this.”

Adopting a more interrogatory tone, he asked: “My question to you Mr. Massee today: Did Mr. Maldonado ask you to do this?”

Massee reiterated what Maldonado had said – that the councilman told him what happened at the port, and he took it upon himself to request the evidence, “at little cost to the city.”

“When a councilmember brings a matter to my attention, my initial reaction is to try to help, and that’s what I was trying to do,” he said.

Still, he acknowledged that he had overstepped boundaries and said he was ready to accept direction from the council on the matter.

But Bonilla wasn’t done, pointing out to Massee that all of the councilmembers had been cc’d by name. Massee responded that he had cc’d them in an effort to be transparent about what he was doing, “but I think, on reflection, I could have blind-copied you and that would have not created the optics that we’re talking about.”

Bonilla continued to press Massee, telling him of a saying in Spanish that translates: “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

“Have you heard of that expression?” he asked. “This is what this is to me. Yes, you’re being transparent, but you’re transparent after the fact.

You did it first, and then you informed us. And that is where I have a problem.”

“It just looks bad, it looks very bad,” Bonilla said as he hammered away, reading again from Massee’s email to the CBP aide saying he would “advise my council member accordingly,” and demanding: “Why didn’t you take this opportunity to end it right then and there, Mr. Masee?”

By then, Massee had had enough.

“Mr. Mayor,” he said to Garino, “I am a graduate of the Naval Academy. I was an officer in the Navy for 11 years, and the attitude that I was taught .. is that you praise in public and you reprimand in private. You and I have spoken on this, Mayor, and I thought that we put this in the right proper posture. I do not like being reprimanded in public.”

Garino insisted that Massee wasn’t being reprimanded, but Bonilla jumped back in.

“The public wants to know, Mr. Massee, how we got to this,” he said. “There’s a big misunderstanding, so let’s clear it up.”

“I would have appreciated, Mr. Bonilla, if you had asked me that when we spoke in private and I would have answered you fully. I am not going to answer cross-examination,” Massee said. “I serve the council at their pleasure. If there’s anything you feel is way over the line, you have the means to take the action you need to take.”

Garino stepped in to say there would be no disciplinary action against Massee, and began to chastise Maldonado for speaking to Massee about the matter in the first place. “You get in trouble at the port, you take care of it yourself,” he said.

The mayor suggested Massee to write a letter to CBP clarifying that the city council is not involved in Maldonado’s dispute with the agency. “We need to make sure we continue having good relations with customs. As it is, we don’t have it,” he said, continuing to express his irritation for several more minutes.

Then it was Vice-Mayor Esther Melendez-Lopez’s turn to voice discontent with Massee and Maldonado. “Personal problems are personal problems,” she said at one point.

In the end, Massee confirmed that he would write a letter to CBP distancing the mayor and council from Maldonado’s complaint.

As for Maldonado’s issue with CBP, he told the NI on Tuesday that he had spoken with someone at the agency’s Washington headquarters the day before, and had initiated a FOIA request to obtain the port’s surveillance video of the Sept. 19 incident. He also expressed surprise that the matter of Massee’s initial involvement had been put on the following day’s city council meeting agenda by Garino and Bonilla, saying that neither man had spoken to him about it.

The NI reached out to CBP to request a comment on Maldonado’s allegations of mistreatment, but the agency did not respond by Thursday afternoon.

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