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Reporter's Notebook: Censorship and intimidation -Covering the Hidalgo County GOP

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Carolina Cuellar
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The Hidalgo County GOP County Executive Committee October meeting

The Hidalgo County GOP County Executive Committee meeting is, in theory, an open meeting. This was only my second time attending, my first time, alone.

Previously, my colleague, Gaige, and I had attended the September meeting, which was mostly uneventful. Many people greeted us amiably. However, as the only reporters and non-political affiliates, we expected glares, and there were plenty.

I was aware that multiple people in the county chapter, outside of the county chapter and even outside of politics, had shared accounts of alleged negative experiences with members of the executive committee consisting of harassment, assault, defamation and anonymous complaints to their employers.

While everything we had heard indicated recording the proceedings was allowed, we chose to take extra precautions and to do so in a concealed way. If asked, I would disclose that I was recording. Nobody did ask. At the meeting, I saw many people openly recording, and I even took my phone out to snap a few pictures.

Secure in the knowledge that there had been no objections to my recording up to that point, I chose to follow my previous plan and leave my Zoom H6N recording in my backpack. I had dressed in all black so that my bright purple press badge stood out. I wanted it to be clear that I was a reporter. I was in no way trying to hide that fact.

I attended this meeting, primarily, because one of my sources and an alleged victim of Aron Peña, Brandy Perez, had prepared a speech to accompany her motion to remove Hidalgo County Chairwoman, Adrienne Peña-Garza, from her position. However, it’s worth noting that the previous day, Brandy’s friend, Cadence Vaughan, had filed a lawsuit against Peña Garza and Aron Peña, for sexual assault. But I had not covered that story; reporter Gaige Davila had.

After arriving alone, with a clear purpose, perfectly visible name tag and some form of documentation, in case things went awry, I texted Gaige to let him know that I was about to go in and was following a couple walking towards the building. Before entering I sent a quick text, telling Brandy I was there.

I lined up to sign in, then wrote my name, phone number and TPR email address on the sign-in sheet. But I left the address line blank. The couple in front of me exchanged pleasantries with those supervising the entrance and then entered the meeting room without issue. Not me.

A woman, who I now know is someone named Alma, saw my badge and asked what media outlet I was associated with. This exchange will become Alma’s justification for berating and intimidating me before threatening to call the cops. But in that moment, I thought my status as a reporter who had previously attended this gathering was clear, so I misunderstood and thought she was asking about the person I was with.

“Are you with anyone?” she asked.

“Yeah, they’re coming, though. Brandy,” I said.

“Who?” Alma said.

“She’s a precinct chair,” I replied.

Alma recognized the name and said OK. I stood there, waiting for Alma and the people speaking in front of me to move so I could grab a seat. I ended up going around, looking at Alma and saying that I was going to take my seat.

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Carolina Cuellar
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The Hidalgo County GOP County Executive Commitee October meeting.

A person I had never seen before, a man named Arturo, then approached me. He also asked me what media outlet I was representing.

"I am a reporter for Texas Public Radio but I’m with Brandy,” I said.

I wanted to be specific. In the last meeting there was a lot of talk about people coming in to slander and spread misinformation. I was trying to be transparent about what I was covering without unintentionally disclosing Brandy’s business.

“You need to come outside, please.”

“Why?”

“You’re not allowed to be here,” Arturo said.

“Why? I was told I was allowed and I came last time,” I said.

The sergeant at arms, Roy Cantu, cut in and said, “Yeah, you just, you can be here, you just can’t record audio or video.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I just won’t,” I replied.

I expected them to leave and then I’d pause my recorder.

“Hand me your phone please,” Arturo said and gestured with his hand.

“Uh, yeah,” I said and gave him my phone.

I was alone, was the only person questioned at the entrance and was the only person whose phone was taken. The air was thick with tension and paranoia because of the news stories that have been circulating about the Peña family. I decided to not stop the recording and do my best to keep the recorder.

“Do you have any other media devices?,” Arturo asked.

“Media devices? Like what?,” I asked back.

“Another phone,” he said.

“No I don’t have another phone,” I responded.

He said he’d put it “over there.” I asked where and he pointed in the general direction of the front desk. At this point, I wasn’t going to leave so all I could do was shrug.

I acted nice and sympathetic when Cantu asked if I understood that this was necessary because of “lots of slander.” He seemed sincere and I wasn’t going to question why transparency was slanderous.

I was not there to make a scene. I was not there to stand up for myself, Brandy or any other person. I didn’t even plan to ask questions because I had personally seen how, at the last meeting, the members leading the meeting had shut down their own precinct chairs when they tried to speak up. No, I was there to observe and document.

Brandy showed up and sat next to me. She said she had heard whispers that they were going to call an executive session. Had they called an executive session, I and all other non-committee members would be asked to leave. Recordings actually wouldn’t be allowed and Brandy would be silenced.

They didn’t call an executive session and the meeting started according to schedule. Through exaggerated knowing glances with others in the room and what I perceived to be passive-aggressive remarks, Peña-Garza made it clear who was on her “side.” Several glares from multiple people made it clear that wasn’t us.

Amid rumors of the possible calling of an executive session, Brandy decided to email the motion to Peña-Garza with the subject line, “7 day Notification for Resolution concerning chair removal.”

Suddenly, a woman who had been staring at us called a motion to adjourn early. Peña-Garza, smiling widely, thanked her and put it to a vote. It was a resounding “yes” except for Brandy’s small, solitary “no.” Peña-Garza adjourned the meeting before the public comment section, which is when Brandy planned to speak.

The meeting ended. There was no actual meeting to observe, so I went to look for my phone.

I looked in the front desk area. I did not see it. I waited for Cantu to finish his conversation, but as he seemed in no rush or had forgotten my phone was confiscated under his direction, I cut in and asked for it. He went to the front desk and didn’t see it.

He pointed outside to Arturo and said he had it. Puzzled, I asked if he had it outside. Arturo came in, opened a drawer in the front desk and joked about making me describe my phone before finally giving it to me.

Brandy told her lawyer that they took my phone (I did not ask her to) and he said I should file a police report. I called my editor, Dan Katz, and told him what happened. He told me to give him a second to call TPR’s lawyers.

I still wanted to interview Brandy about the meeting so I asked her to wait while I tried to figure out why my phone was confiscated. Brandy and her friend insisted on going with me because they didn’t think it was safe for me to go alone.

Arturo was pacing outside, so I approached and asked. He told me he didn’t know and that he was just following orders. But he did point me in the direction of the building secretary, Jordan De La Garza, who, he said, might have an answer. I thanked Arturo and went back inside to ask why they had taken my phone.

I asked to speak with De La Garza. He met me at the front entrance and asked how he could help me. I told him I wanted to know why my phone was taken away.

He didn’t seem to know why my phone was taken but repeated what those around him said. Cantu said there was no recording allowed, and others said I wasn’t even supposed to be at the meeting as it was in “executive session.” At this point Brandy and her friend cut in, naming bylaws and questioning their justification.

If I wasn’t allowed to record, why were people allowed to record during previous meetings?

No one ever called the meeting into executive session and had it been called into executive session, I, along with all the other members of the public, would’ve had to leave. But we weren’t.

After this day, I went back to check the bylaws which explicitly state that outside of an executive session, members of the executive committee could video record any meeting. While De La Garza and others didn’t actually cite this particular line, I could understand how this rule could justify their request for me to not record.

However, nowhere in the bylaws does it say anyone’s phone may be confiscated, especially not just one single person.

There are no rules against reporters in the meeting. There are no rules prohibiting us from recording meetings. Instead, the rules, on paper, promote transparency and accountability.

De La Garza and others were steadfast in that I couldn’t record but we all agreed my phone should never have been taken.

At the time, I didn’t have extensive knowledge on the county or state’s bylaws on conducting these meetings or, really, the energy to continue questioning the situation when the only logical answer was that my phone was taken because I am a reporter.

I thanked De La Garza for his time, but as I headed out, Alma appeared beside him and warned me that, “Next time you come here, as a reporter, you can’t undermine me.”

Puzzled, I exclaimed, “I’m not undermining you!”

She retorted with, “I am not an idiot. I see your badge, that your badge says Texas Public Radio! I am a professional.”

I was confused and indignant. My understanding of her argument was that she believed I misrepresented myself as someone who is not a reporter.

I told her I may have misunderstood when she asked if I was “with anyone,” but promptly informed everyone afterward, including the gentleman who took my phone, that I am, in fact, a reporter for Texas Public Radio. The badge she herself pointed out indicated that fact.

The conversation devolved. As De la Garza continued apologizing, she continued to repeat that I couldn’t undermine her. She made legal threats. Someone asked her if they should ask me to leave. She told them not to worry and added that she’d just call the police.

At this point I asked if I should seek legal action due to their taking my phone and made it clear that I came in as a reporter with my badge completely apparent.

Also, I had attended the previous month’s meeting just fine. I had not been removed or asked to leave. I said I wouldn’t record, and I was still the only person whose phone was taken.

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Carolina Cuellar
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Hidalgo County GOP County Executive Committee (A woman in the audience is using a phone to take pictures.)

The interaction ended with De La Garza apologizing for my phone being taken and he gave me his card in case I needed anything else. I thanked him and left with Brandy and her friend.

The truth is, I’ve seen so much evidence of Aron Peña inappropriately interacting with teenage girls and minors justified as mutual flirtations. I’ve seen evidence backing stories of assault and abuse at the hands of Peña and some of his family members dismissed as “political attacks” by people who blame the victims.

I chose to file a police report because I don’t want these small instances of censorship and intimidation to go unnoticed. In those situations, when things appear to escalate suddenly, a justification that is often employed is to say that the reporter is acting in some kind of political ploy.

By telling me I can’t record and then taking my phone, Hidalgo County GOP leaders are denying public accountability and asserting they don’t care about transparency.

In the words of Cameron County GOP Chairwoman, Morgan Cisneros Graham, these people in the Hidalgo County GOP are “undermining the foundation and values of [their own] institution.”

Carolina Cuellar reports for Texas Public Radio from the city of McAllen where she covers business and border issues. Her position is made possible by Report For America — a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.