El Paso District Attorney Yvonne Rosales resigns ahead of Wednesday hearing

Embattled El Paso District Attorney Yvonne Rosales resigned Monday, which came to light during an in-person hearing in El Paso's 346th District Court ahead of a Wednesday hearing regarding the violation of the gag order issued in the Walmart shooting case.

Rosales' tenure will come to an end at 5 p.m. Dec. 14, one day before she was scheduled to appear in court to possibly be suspended until the removal suit against her had been resolved.

In her resignation letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, Rosales says that effective immediately, her first assistant, Salah George Al-Hanna, will assume all duties and responsibilities as acting district attorney. She said Al-Hanna will ensure that "the daily operations of the office will continue to run smoothly and minimize any disruption in serving the victims of crime."

A spokesperson for Abbott said she was not aware if the governor's office had received Rosales' letter by the close of business Monday.

Rosales first took office in January of last year, so it will fall to the governor to appoint a replacement to serve out the remainder of her term, which expires in 2024.

Rosales has been embroiled in multiple court battles over the past several months, with Monday's hearing related to the removal petition filed against her by defense attorney Omar Carmona, who did not respond to a request for comment following Monday's announcement.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal announced earlier this month she would prosecute the case against Rosales.

After Rosales' resignation, Bernal issued a statement saying: "As you know, DA Rosales has announced her intent to resign from office. The lawsuit to remove her from office remains pending. Upon the effective date of her resignation (December 14, 2022), my office will move to dismiss the removal proceedings. Because the lawsuit remains pending, I will not comment further on that litigation, but I do want to thank my team for the work they have done to get us this far.

"Under the best of circumstances, holding public office is difficult. I appreciate that DA Rosales’ decision to resign was a difficult one. It is time, however, that we all focus on ways in which we can work together to improve and repair the criminal justice system in El Paso and ensure a smooth transition to the next DA administration. The needs of the victims, our community and stakeholders must be our primary focus."

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser also commented on Rosales' resignation, calling the incidents leading up to the district attorney's departure a "regrettable situation."

"(B)ut I think it is far better to have reached a resolution sooner rather than later," Leeser said in the statement. "It will avoid further hearings and a trial, and the individual that is appointed can move forward in a timely manner. It is my understanding that the legal process followed its course efficiently, and her decision brings this issue to a swift resolution, which is always optimal.”

Steps to replace district attorney after resignation

Bernal's statement outlined the next steps in replacing Rosales.

She said in order to resign, under Texas law a district attorney:

1. Must resign in writing and tender her resignation to the governor.

2. The resignation becomes effective upon the governor’s acceptance of it or the expiration of eight days, whichever is first.

3. Even after the resignation becomes effective, Rosales will remain in office as a “holdover” office holder. In holdover status she remains free to exercise all her duties and powers until the governor appoints her successor.

4. The governor, in his sole discretion, chooses her successor, who must be a licensed attorney.

5. The candidate must meet the following qualifications:

a. Be at least 18 years old

b. Be a registered voter

c. Have resided in Texas more than one year and at least six months inside the district

d. Be a practicing lawyer.

e. Not be convicted of a felony

f. Not determined to be incompetent by a probate court

Bernal said: "The DA’s announced resignation does not mean the automatic dismissal of any criminal cases. She remains responsible for ensuring the continued prosecution of existing cases. The community and victims, in particular, should understand that the law provides for a transition to ensure the protection of the criminal cases pending in this district."

The road to resignation

The bid to have Rosales removed from office began in late August, when Carmona filed a petition accusing her of "official misconduct and continued incompetence," citing a decrease in assault cases against alleged abusers and her handling of a capital murder case in December 2021, which was dismissed due to "prosecutorial vindictiveness and more."

"Rosales's official misconduct and continued incompetence clearly disqualifies her from continuing in her elected position," Carmona's petition stated. "Under the circumstances, Rosales has demonstrated that she should be removed from the office to which she was elected."

Rosales fired back a few days later, asserting that the petition should be dismissed on technical grounds as it lacked Bernal's signature, saying the petition was "technically defect in violation of statute."

A little over a week later, Rosales filed a motion seeking Bernal's removal from the case over a conflict of interest and accused Carmona of being part of a conspiracy, alongside attorney Justin Underwood and El Paso Matters CEO Bob Moore, to "politically attack and remove" her from office.

The alleged conflict of interest in Bernal's office arose because she employed Carmona's wife, Dana, and other attorneys who previously were employed in the District Attorney's Office but were terminated shortly after Rosales took office.

The motion also cited a social media exchange between Moore and Underwood in which they discussed the possibility of Rosales being removed from office via petition. Carmona's petition was filed two days later.

Four days later, Judge Tryon Lewis weighed in by dismissing all of the pleadings so far filed in the removal case, saying that a citation had not yet been issued to Rosales and, therefore, no filings could be considered until she was served in the case.

Rosales was finally served in the case in late September, after several failed attempts, starting the clock for her to respond. Bernal filed a request, which was granted shortly thereafter, for more time to decide whether to prosecute the case.

"We will fight this frivolous petition for removal and protect the sanctity of the electoral process," the District Attorney's Office said in a news release following the citation. "In the meantime, we continue to go about our daily business of serving the needs of victims of crime and upholding our duties to the members of this community. We look forward to putting this meritless lawsuit behind us."

Rosales responded to the citation after 10 days and denied all of the allegations, asserting that the petition lacked any "credible factual or legal basis" and that Carmona "failed to plead specific facts supporting his allegation" that Rosales is guilty of misconduct or incompetence."

On Nov. 2, Bernal announced her decision to prosecute the case, which was then set to go before a jury in March.

More controversy

Rosales' handling of the Walmart mass shooting case also was cited in Carmona's petition ‒ while battling against the removal petition, she also faced a wall of controversy related to the gag order issued in the case in July.

In early September, Rosales filed a motion to recuse Judge Sam Medrano from the case, citing disagreements over personnel changes, the timing of case filings and her public communications about the case, among other issues. A hearing on the recusal was delayed at Rosales' urging.

Despite the prolonged back and forth, Medrano never was pulled from the case.

Perhaps Rosales' greatest conflict arose when Underwood, who was assigned by the judge to find out who violated the July gag order, threw another shadow over the case.

In his report, Underwood, who was brought on by the court to represent the family of Alexander Gerhard Hoffmann, a victim of the Aug. 3, 2019, Walmart shooting, asserted that Rosales' office broke the order when emails regarding the case were sent to the media from the phone of Rosa Maria Valdez Garcia, Hoffmann's widow, but were composed by Anne Rodriguez, wife of attorney and Vinton Municipal Court Judge Roger Rodriguez, who reportedly sent them from Valdez's phone.

Rodriguez, the report claimed, had represented himself to the family on multiple occasions as a surrogate for Rosales' office. He also threatened family members, telling Valdez not to "betray" him because he had "snipers everywhere," the report stated.

Rodriguez was implicated in the report alongside former Assistant El Paso District Attorney Curtis Cox, who recently resigned.

In her response, Rosales accused Underwood of bias, again citing his involvement in a conspiracy to remove her from office, and questioned the reliability of audio recordings of Rodriguez, which were translated but not submitted to her office within the required time frame.

The gag order will be at the center of a court hearing Wednesday, which Rosales and Cox were previously ordered to attend in person.

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: El Paso DA Yvonne Rosales resigns; governor will appoint replacement