The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has named an interim president and CEO after Javier Palomarez of Dallas exited the top post on Feb. 13. But it’s unclear whether the battle between Palomarez and chamber chairman emeritus Nina Vaca of Dallas will be settled anytime soon.
Palomarez, who served as the national organization’s president and CEO for nearly 11 years, was accused of financial impropriety and sexual harassment by members of the chamber late last year. According to a petition filed in Dallas County district court, Palomarez was “terminated … following a board presentation by Vaca.” The petition says Vaca alleged “overcompensation” by Palomarez of as much as $1.5 million. Since then, the chamber’s outside counsel said an investigation had determined that “the salary paid was appropriate, and that the board [would not take any] further action against Mr. Palomarez.” The chamber has yet to respond to a request for comment on the sexual harassment allegations.
Palomarez, however, denies any wrongdoing during his time at the chamber, saying that the allegations stem from an affair gone sour with Vaca, the CEO of Dallas’s Pinnacle Group, who found the alleged financial impropriety as she was reviewing Palomarez’s contract for renewal.
“About two years ago, I broke off the relationship,” Palomarez told D CEO magazine, claiming the “intimate relationship” began in 2010. “I said … ‘I love you dearly and have all the respect for you in the world, but I’m not marrying you and I’m not going to leave my wife.’ [Nina] wouldn’t have it … One argument led to another to another to another.”
Vaca’s lawyer vigorously denies Palomarez’s claim. “Mr. Palomarez has mischaracterized their friendship in a way designed to deflect attention and get retribution against Nina for raising the original financial concerns,” Charla Aldous of Aldous\Walker LLP said. “It’s been reported that the chamber ultimately acted to remove Mr. Palomarez from his role, so they at least saw past the deflection and attempted bullying.”
On Jan. 11, Palomarez filed a petition requesting a deposition from Vaca, claiming that she and other members of the chamber and foundation had co-conspired against Palomarez to get him fired with the overcompensation and sexual harassment claims. A court date was initially set, then canceled. Palomarez’s attorney handling the petition has not responded to an inquiry about the petition and whether another date will be set.
The petition paints Vaca as the head of the plan, even offering Palomarez’s chief of staff the CEO spot in exchange for making a sexual harassment claim against Palomarez. The petition also says that Vaca was chair of the chamber’s compensation committee during “the relevant time period starting in 2010.” Vaca’s camp denies she had anything to do with the period in which Palomarez was allegedly overcompensated. “Nina Vaca did not approve his compensation, and had no authority or oversight over it,” Aldous said. “Instead, she was part of a chamber committee that reviewed his contract and raised questions about it, resulting in the chamber investigation.”
Palomarez admits that he ruffled some feathers during his time as president and CEO of the chamber, mostly because he was a businessman brought in by Vaca to execute a turnaround strategy for the chamber, which was struggling. In the process he took some drastic measures, slashing the staff from more than 30 down to four, he says. He also says he drove corporate sponsorships from 20 to more than 265 during his tenure, and cut off financial support from the government. He also divided the chamber when he pushed for the group to become politically involved, first speaking out against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and endorsing Hillary Clinton, followed by efforts to work with Trump after he won the presidency.
“Like it or not, we had to have a relationship with this president,” he said. “But the board was incredibly split … It was a bumpy ride. As were going through all those gyrations, you stress and push and pull the board to get to where you think we need to be.”
Sometimes the disagreements even caused people to leave the chamber, he said.
But Maria Cardona, a former member of the executive committee and the board, says Palomarez did much more than that. He often asked for his staff to go above what was suitable and often abused his place of power with younger members of the staff, she said. That’s what truly caused the high turnover, she claims.
“There is the traditional power play,” she said, adding that she heard numerous stories from staff members. “Javier liked to use his position of power to take advantage of his young staffers.”
Palomarez’s former chief of staff, Gissel Gazek Nicholas, claims that Palomarez rubbed the back of her hand while telling her he was attracted to her and wondered what it would be like to be with her, according to an article in The New York Times. He also pulled her toward him and tried to kiss her, the article said. Palomarez also faced allegations in 1996 during his time at Allstate Insurance. There, a subordinate sued him for “making suggestive comments, kissing her, and placing his hand on her thigh,” The Times reported.
Marcos Ronquillo of Fishman Jackson Ronquillo PLLC, who is also representing Palomarez, says that the legal team is currently investigating all claims against him. Palomarez, meanwhile, offers an alternate point of view. “We live in a time in society where all anybody has to do is make an allegation. There is no due process,” he says. “We live in a world where that becomes buzz. But to kiss her and rub the back of her hand is hardly assault.”
For now, Palomarez says he’s focused on repairing his marriage, claiming he failed his wife when he got romantically involved with Vaca.
Cardona calls the alleged affair a “cheap shot,” adding, “It’s a ridiculous reaction from someone whose hand got caught in the cookie jar.”