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Of conspiracies, failures and a county judge candidate

We would not be commenting here on last week’s news story about the failure of Democratic candidate for county judge, Ruben Becerra, to pay his taxes – except that Mr. Becerra and his family seem determined to keep the story alive.

Rather than explaining himself, or paying his taxes (or just keeping quiet and letting the campaign move on), Mr. Becerra – or at least his campaign, and sometimes family members speaking as surrogates – is aggressively on the attack against the Hays Free Press and the News-Dispatch, misrepresenting some facts, fabricating conspiracy theories, and – in imitation of national politicians caught in embarrassing positions – crying “fake news.”

To refresh: we reported last week that Becerra owes almost $90,000 in back taxes; the IRS recently filed a lien against his business property for, among other things, withholding payroll taxes from his employees’ paychecks but then never paying the withheld funds to the government. This came to light recently when the IRS listed liens in a public notice that contradicted earlier statements by Becerra, prompting a Hays Free Press reporter to investigate.

The story about his taxes, business finance problems, and related issues are relevant because Becerra wants to be the chief budget and administrative officer for the county. 

This newspaper routinely checks to make sure that aspirants to political jobs pay their taxes, and has reported on a previous county judge and a city council member who had outstanding tax bills. Mr. Becerra was not singled out. We also checked to see whether his competitor in the race, Republican Will Conley, had paid his taxes. He has.

Mr. Becerra did not respond to requests sent by phone, email and text to be interviewed. Since the story came out, he and his surrogates, including his wife, have declared his innocence on social media and in a mass email, proclaiming that he has proof he paid his taxes, and asserting he is the victim of a conspiracy.

However, despite what he says, he still has not provided any evidence, such as tax receipts. Instead, he tries to shift focus to the rather silly notion of a conspiracy, whose main perpetrators, he says, are members of the “Barton family,” who own a significant portion of this newspaper and have been identified with the Hays Free Press since its founding. This takes real chutzpah, since the matriarch of the Barton family (who is also the largest single stockholder in the company that owns this newspaper) has had a 4×8 sign supporting Becerra on her fence for several months.

No, this newspaper was not out to get Mr. Becerra. Rather, the owners see the paper’s mission as one of impartial truth-telling, and of holding people in power – or those who would seek power – accountable to the citizens. Our goal is to hire good journalists and to give them the resources and support to do their jobs with the highest levels of integrity and ethics.

Of course we make mistakes at times. But we’re proud of our record and extremely careful about news stories that might affect people’s careers or the votes of our readers. We don’t print such things lightly, nor with glee, nor out of spite.

And we don’t play favorites with friends or political parties. Part of Mr. Becerra’s anger, or at least the anger of some of his supporters, seems triggered because several of our stockholders – though by no means all of our owners – are active Democrats.This band of critics seem to feel that, because of the political philosophy of some of the owners, we should suppress a story about Mr. Becerra, because he is the Democratic nominee. The battle lines this year seem so starkly drawn that, to some on both sides, no sin is too great to overlook if you belong to right party.

We have editorialized about how Republicans should stand up to hypocrisy and excess in their own party; there’s no double standard when it comes Democrats. Whatever the political leanings or business friendships of the owners, those concerns will always take a backseat to the integrity of the newspaper so long as the current owners preside. That’s the compact we have with our staff, our readers, and more importantly, with ourselves.

We stand by the story written, researched, and fact-checked independently by our reporter and editors. In our view, Mr. Becerra’s trouble with the law and his questionable financial acumen are relevant to his qualifications and an important piece of information for voters – in short, news.

We did not offer an opinion at the time the story was printed on whether that information should disqualify Mr. Becerra. Had we, we would have said, “No, it’s one piece of the puzzle but not the whole of his record nor all he should be judged upon.” Now, having seen the crassness of the tactics he is using against his opponent as the campaign draws to a close, having experienced first-hand what can most charitably be described as his carelessness with the truth, and having observed his utter unwillingness to take responsibility for his own problems, we say this: the failures revealed in our story do not alone make Mr. Becerra unqualified for the job, but his effort to hide and obfuscate his record, and his failures after the story came to light, just might.

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