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Disturbing past of STC Police Chief surfaces amid lawsuits against college

Updated: Feb 20, 2019

Disturbing past of STC Police Chief surfaces amid lawsuits against college

By Únete

South Texas College recently settled yet another lawsuit, this one filed against its Police Chief, Paul B. Varville. The lawsuit deals with strikingly similar personnel issues found in other cases implicating Varville, including a case the college settled less than a year earlier with an STC faculty member.

It appears that Mr. Varville has a history, in New York state and in the Valley, for being accused of retaliation against people who raise concerns about problems in areas under his control, and then getting them fired. STC settled the most recent concerns against Mr. Varville in December 2017, in the case of Fabio Hernandez VS South Texas Community College and Paul B. Varville, filed February 11, 2016 in the 389th District Court. It alleged Mr. Varville’s retaliation against the plaintiff for raising concerns over racism and favoritism within the campus police department, scheduling issues, and illegal activity in the department reported to supervisors and State investigators. At the time he began his work with the new STC police department when it formed in 2014 (Varville being the founding Chief), Mr. Hernandez was in charge of scheduling personnel to monitor the new, highly sophisticated Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, access to which the Texas DPS requires the system be manned 24/7. STC administration, including Chief Varville, pressured Officer Hernandez to get people to work longer and more shifts, about which numerous employees complained. When Hernandez brought this to the Chief’s attention, Mr. Varville initiated an informal search into issues to use as leverage against Mr. Hernandez to keep his mouth shut and cease complaining. Officer Hernandez claimed that he soon found himself under a more formal investigation by Chief Varville and the STC Human Resources director, Brenda Balderas. Hernandez argued that Varville subsequently fabricated stories of Mr. Hernandez committing sexual harassment and developing “inappropriate” relationships with other employees. Officer Hernandez further added that when he discovered that Chief Varville was in fact not licensed to be a peace officer in Texas and raised the issue with the appropriate STC and State law enforcement authorities, Mr. Varville went heavily on the offensive to discredit Mr. Hernandez as untruthful, which included improperly leading the investigation that eventuated in Mr. Hernandez’s termination, an investigation the lawsuit claimed did not follow processes outlined in STC’s board policy on grievance procedures (specifically, STC policy 4904, which has since been revised by STC administration and the board to actually make it even easier to terminate an employee today-- https://admin.southtexascollege.edu/president/policies/pdf/4000/4904.pdf ). Mr. Hernandez moreover alleges that Mr. Varville’s efforts were also meant to destroy Mr. Hernandez’s law enforcement career. STC settled with Officer Hernandez out of court, paying taxpayer money to keep the case silent. To access the lawsuit, look up Cause No. C-0706-16-H at http://pa.co.hidalgo.tx.us/default.aspx under “Civil, Family & Probate Case Records.” See especially, Original Petition. Following settlement of the Hernandez lawsuit, the college has gone out of its way to avoid mentioning Varville as Police Chief and instead now refers to him as the “Chief Administrator” of the STC DPS, when, until settling the lawsuit, Mr. Varville “hailed himself” as “Chief of Police.” Nevertheless, this raises the question of Mr. Varville’s background and qualifications. Court documents list Mr. Varville’s previous employment with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), alleging similar behavior at those previous employments. Únete discovered another lawsuit, dating from 2003, when Mr. Varville was the TSA director at Albany International Airport in New York. The plaintiff in that case was David Erickson, a 47-year old retired major and two-time Bronze Star recipient for his heroism during the first Gulf War. Mr. Erickson accused Mr. Varville and TSA administrators under him at Albany of harassing employees and creating a hostile work environment, which led to retaliation against Erickson, a rapid array of complaints and trumped up charges followed by his termination. Mr. Erickson was told he was fired for misconduct and scheduling errors, accusations he vehemently denied. "Whenever someone was sick, what they wanted was for me to write them up," he said. Those included a woman battling cancer and a man who was attending the funeral of a family member. Erickson claimed 50 to 60 others were fired under such pretexts before he himself was canned. Within six months of Mr. Erickson's employment at the airport, he went from being considered an outstanding employee to an outcast. His attorney Steve DiNigris of Washington, D.C. described that this was done to Erickson "simply because he would not target females and others for improper treatment by the named supervisors in the complaint." Paul Varville was at the very top of those named. http://www.aviationpros.com/news/10396014/suit-tells-of-trouble-in-airport-security More recently, in early 2017, STC mediated a case with one of its history instructors, John Liss before it could get to court. Mr. Liss’s case involved several administrators collaborating to threaten Mr. Liss when he refused to accept unethical and unprofessional treatment by the STC Police Department, Liss told Únete on March 27. Mr. Liss’s problems began when he received tickets and then a Denver boot for not having a parking permit. When he spoke with an officer who arrived on the scene, Mr. Liss told him, “that as a Texas citizen I have a right to defend my property and I was going to saw off the wheel lock.” The officer told Mr. Liss that “he would arrest me if I did, and that if I resisted, he would shoot me. Of course, they claimed that never happened.”

Paul Varville conducted the investigation into Liss’s case, “but he never even interviewed me, the person who filed the complaint,” Liss contends. Varville sent a verdict to Mr. Liss denying all allegations. Mr. Liss argues that Mr. Varville lied about board policy and fabricated events surrounding his case.

Not satisfied with Mr. Varville’s conclusions, Mr. Liss, following the school’s complaint procedure, took his case to Varville’s supervisors--first to H.R. director Brenda Balderas, who never responded, and then to Balderas’s supervisor, V. P. for Finances and Administrative Services, Ms. Mary Elizondo--who falsely claimed that Mr. Liss had not followed the complaint procedure properly, so his complaint was null.

About a month after the wheel lock incident, Mr. Liss received a note on his car stating he had left it unlocked. Mr. Liss took the note to the STC Police Department, explaining to them that his car could not possibly have been deemed “unlocked” because of its sophisticated electronics that doesn’t have a “lock” that can be seen through the window. “They had to have tried the door and opened it to know it was unlocked,” Liss says. “It was clearly an illegal entry into my vehicle . . . a 4th Amendment violation.”

A pattern of police harassment and abuse had become widespread on the Pecan campus during the Spring 2016 semester according to faculty and students who spoke with Únete under condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. They complained often at the time of STC police entering their vehicles, ostensibly to leave the “friendly” note stating the owner left their door unlocked, but some reported it was done to look for reasons to arrest people, particularly students.

A direct consequence of this police harassment was the intentional strategy to criminalize students via 4th Amendment right of privacy violations, privacy the courts have clarified applies to individual’s vehicles. Several students were arrested that semester on misdemeanor marijuana charges, forced to spend the night in the Hidalgo County Jail, afterward spending thousands of dollars getting the offense expunged from their records, while they dropped out of STC.

Mr. Liss knew this behavior was illegal and complained to the STC PD and Human Resources Office, for naught. When Mr. Liss refused to back down and let his concerns go, things heated up for him. He presented his concerns to the STC Faculty Senate. The elected body found his concerns worth investigating further and began a process to address them. Within two days, however, Ms. Balderas, the HR director, opened an investigation into his relationship with his fiancé, a former student, to see whether he had acted inappropriately in that relationship. Mr. Liss alleged that the HR director subsequently coached witnesses (Criminal Justice faculty who were also friends of the Chief), allowed witness tampering of the case, doctored files, engaged in FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) violations using confidential student records, removed his department chair from the investigation in violation of the employee complaint policy, and found him guilty of an inappropriate relationship with a student, despite no solid evidence or admission of guilt.

Liss took his case to STC Board Chair, Dr. Alejo Salinas, in November to bring the issue to the Board's attention. Salinas seemed unaware but interested in the case, requesting additional information and documentation from Liss. Since then, Liss has not heard back.

The policy under question (4904) is the same policy Officer Hernandez cited in his lawsuit against Chief Varville, the Employee Complaint Procedure. Mr. Varville’s alleged pattern of behavior is consistent in all three cases. Plaintiffs, who have never met, bearing no relation to one another, describing the same retaliatory behavior against them, lays out, in textbook form, Varville’s (M.O.) modus operandi for people whom he targets for termination: discredit, dirty-up, dismiss.

It was only after Mr. Liss consulted a lawyer and retained counsel that the school became all the more defensive, offering him a large settlement to resign. How much taxpayer money does STC spend annually on settlements such as these? As taxpayers, we have the right to know. And as a public institution, STC should be transparent.

As is well-known on campus, a constant flow of lawsuits against STC dates back almost to the beginning of the college. These are not anomalies but a pattern of behavior and preponderance of evidence demonstrating STC would rather risk lawsuits and shut down any complaint that administrators find uncomfortable, rather than take employee and student concerns seriously. They also seem entirely unconcerned about the amount of taxpayer money that goes into paying out such settlements. The steady stream of the lawsuits seems unending. STC faculty and staff members who wish to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation say they know of multiple lawsuits being settled every year. Administrators cited as defendants in the lawsuits, despite the enormous costs to the school and taxpayers, are rarely terminated. “Administration protects its own to keep them loyal to the president,” one inside source commented. “With this protection she provides them, they’re willing to do anything for her.”

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