McALLEN, Texas (CN) – A former toll collector at an international bridge claims in Federal Court that she was fired for filing a police report about her bosses embezzling tolls, which cost the city of Pharr “potentially millions in lost revenue.”
Esmeralda Arevalo, a toll collector at the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, sued the City of Pharr, its City Manager Fred Sandoval and Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge Director Jesse Medina.
Arevalo says she began working for Pharr in 2002 as a toll collector at the bridge.
“Because a large percentage of the travelers on the bridge are Mexican residents, the bridge allowed travelers to pay the toll in Mexican pesos as well as U.S. dollars,” the complaint states. “Those who paid in pesos, however, had to pay the toll at a higher conversion rate than the market conversion rate at that particular time.
“Thus, in exchange for the convenience of paying in pesos, a driver of a car could pay $3.00 U.S. dollars or the equivalent in pesos calculated at a rate of 16 pesos to one dollar, totaling 48 pesos, rather than the market rate, which could be 13 pesos to one dollar, or 39 pesos.”
Arevalo claims that “bridge supervisors required the toll collectors to falsify their daily reports of money collected by underreporting the amount of pesos they had actually received and, likewise, inflating the amount of dollars. Thus, an unsuspecting city employee or auditor would see that the combined amount of dollars and pesos corresponded with the number of vehicles that traveled through the toll plaza, because that observer would never know which drivers paid in dollars and which paid in pesos. Upon information and belief, this embezzlement of bridge and city funds began long ago, costing the city of Pharr potentially millions in lost revenue.”
Arevalo claims her bosses treated her badly because she refused to play their games.
“For reasons unknown to plaintiff, she noticed that staff of the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge was fragmented into two groups: those who ingratiated themselves to the bridge administration and supervisors and, therefore, received special treatment and those who did not and were singled out for boorish treatment.
“Because plaintiff would not play along with the supervisors’ infantile games and demands, she fell in the latter group and was persecuted as a result,” according to the complaint.
Arevalo says she suffered symptoms of what was found to be a tumor on her pancreas in December 2009.
“She underwent central pancreatectomy on February 25, 2010 at the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and was away from work on medical leave until September 14, 2010, when she resumed her regular duties,” the complaint states.
“On June 5, 2011, she was working her regular shift when she had to leave her toll booth to open a gate. To do so, she had to move and lift the gate up to put it in place. When she did so, she strained and felt like she pulled something in her abdomen. Although she could perform her toll collecting duties for the rest of her shift, she reported the injury to her supervisor, Joel Flores, expecting him to take the steps necessary to open a workers’ compensation claim. After several days of waiting to be sent to a doctor, she could not wait any longer, so she consulted with her family physician.”
Arevalo says her doctor told her to get a CT scan, and when she returned to work she found that Flores had not opened a workers’ compensation claim for her. Arevalo says in an effort to open a claim she sent a letter to the city’s workers’ compensation carrier on July 14, 2011.
“While the city’s carrier was attempting to process the claim, she was referred back to MD Anderson Hospital in Houston for a consultation regarding her injury. Dr. Nguyen diagnosed her as having suffered a hernia near the site of her incision on June 5, and recommended that she have surgery to repair it.
“Plaintiff underwent surgery on August 18, 2011 successfully, but she again had to take leave of work from then until October 2011, when she was cleared to return to her duties at the bridge.
“Significantly, plaintiff never received workers’ compensation during the
time she missed work, because her supervisors chose to refuse to support her in her claim. The city alleges that plaintiff did not suffer an on-the-job injury and that, if she did, she failed to report it in a timely manner,” according to the complaint.
Arevalo claims that when she returned to work her bosses “openly challenged the idea that she had sustained a real injury while at work, despite the fact that she could prove that she had traveled to Houston to have surgery.”
The complaint continues: “Most disconcerting, however, was the fact that plaintiff was also ordered by her supervisors to participate in an embezzlement scheme that was designed to steal from the city of Pharr, presumably without the risk of anyone on the outside noticing. The scheme involved the bridge’s receipt of pesos and worked as follows: Every day, at least one supervisor would approach at least one toll collector to order him or her to exchange a certain sum in U.S. dollars for the equivalent amount in Mexican pesos. When this occurred, the supervisors expressed and implied that they expected to receive a sum in pesos that corresponded with the exchange rate that the bridge charged travelers, and not the market exchange rate that day.
“For example, a supervisor would hand a toll booth collector $100.00 in U.S. dollars and tell the toll booth collector to hand over 1,600 pesos, at the inflated ‘convenience fee’ rate of 16:1 that the bridge charged, not the regular rate that would net the supervisor merely 1,300 pesos. Upon information and belief, the supervisor would then take the pesos to a local money exchange location and buy U.S. dollars at the market exchange rate, which is 13:1 in this example.
“Thus, a supervisor who changed $100.00 for 1,600 pesos would then sell the 1,600 pesos for approximately $123.00 at a ‘casa de cambio,’ [exchange house] thereby profiting approximately $23.00 in the transaction, not including the fee. These transactions, which occurred well before plaintiff returned to work in the fall of 2011, deprived the bridge and the city of Pharr of the opportunity to collect the profit that those entities – and not bridge supervisors – should have realized from the ‘convenience fee’ it charged peso-paying drivers.
“So as not to raise any suspicion, the bridge supervisors required the toll collectors to falsify their daily reports of money collected by underreporting the amount of pesos they had actually received and, likewise, inflating the amount of dollars. Thus, an unsuspecting city employee or auditor would see that the combined amount of dollars and pesos corresponded with the number of vehicles that traveled through the toll plaza, because that observer would never know which drivers paid in dollars and which paid in pesos. Upon information and belief, this embezzlement of bridge and city funds began long ago, costing the city of Pharr potentially millions in lost revenue.”
Arevalo says she filed a report about the toll embezzlement with the Pharr Police Department on Nov. 17, 2011. The next day, she says, she gave a letter to defendant bridge director Medina.
“In her letter, she set out her concerns about the peso exchange scam and notified defendant Medina that she had filed a police report with the Pharr PD, even including the case number. She delivered a copy of this letter to defendant Fred Sandoval, Pharr City Manager,” the complaint states.
Arevalo says she attended what she believed was a compulsory workers’ compensation benefit review conference in Weslaco on Dec. 5, 2011 only to find out that the conference was scheduled for two days later.
“On December 6, 2011, she informed her supervisor and Assistant Bridge Director Fred Brouwen that she had to attend the conference on December 7, 2011,” according to the complaint. “He immediately accused her of lying about her reason for leaving work on December 5, and stated that it was up to her whether she thought she should take off of work again on December 7. Because she was required to attend the benefit review conference, she left work on the morning of December 7, 2011 to attend the conference for approximately two hours and then returned to work. When she returned, she was told to go home for the rest of the day. That day, the city of Pharr issued a ‘Letter of Temporary Suspension’ notifying plaintiff that she was temporarily suspended without pay. On December 9, 2011, plaintiff was summoned to the bridge and was informed that she had been terminated.”
Arevalo says she appealed her firing, claiming it was in retaliation for her reporting the “peso exchange scam,” and for filing a workers’ compensation claim. Sandoval rejected her appeal she says.
Arevalo seeks back pay, front pay, retirement benefits and health coverage, and damages for civil rights violations, Texas whistleblower retaliation and workers’ compensation retaliation.
She is represented by John Millin, of McAllen.
The Pharr-Reynosa bridge is one of nine international bridges in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The entire network of bridges are a major industrial corridor to and from the maquiladora, or assembly, plants in Mexico, and an International Trade Zone centered on McAllen.
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimated in 2010 that 3.4 million vehicles cross the bridges every day, including 300,000 trucks. All must pay tolls, which vary.