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Winners in La Joya ISD school board elections outspent losers by nearly four to one

It was Election Day night and after losing to her opponent, Alex Cantu, by 259 votes Graciela “Gracie” Flores was obviously dejected she had lost following her unsuccessful run for the Place 7 seat on the La Joya Independent School Board of Trustees.


“I’m not surprised because they spent a lot of money,” Flores said of the four winning candidates, all of whom ran together on a slate called “Team Liberty.”

20161108 CMYK LJISD Election Night Photos JH 0015

Photo caption: Oscar O. “Coach” Salinas (right) is congratulated by an unidentified supporter Tuesday night at Reyna’s Events Center  in Palmview after Salinas was reelected to the La Joya ISD Board.  Progress Times photo by Joe Hinton.

Advised of Flores’ comment Cantu, a La Joya area businessman who operates an early childhood education center, denied it was money that won the election.


“It’s not the money it’s that we worked it,” Cantu said. “We walked the streets seven to seven. I think we did a lot with the little we had because we worked it and left it all on the field.”


Cantu’s comments were made in front of Reyna’s Eventos Sociales where the winning candidates gathered on election night. Owner Elia Reyna said she donated the use of her opulent events center on Mission’s west side to the Team Liberty candidates and some Palmview city council candidates who ran together under the “Palmview One” slate. Reyna said it amounted to a $5,000 in-kind contribution. In contrast, a majority of the LJISD losing candidates like Flores met at Buchanan’s Bar and Grill a few miles away mixing with other bar patrons on election night.


Despite Cantu’s comments, campaign finance records obtained by the Progress Times show the total spent by the four winning candidates was nearly four times the combined total spent by their six opponents.


In all the four winning candidates including Cantu, Alex O. “Coach” Salinas, Armin Garza and Claudia Ochoa, spent a combined $79,530 while the six remaining candidates spent a combined $20,419, according to campaign finance records. Seats on the board are voluntary and unpaid.


Records show Cantu was the largest spender in the election having spent $31,143 with $20,000 from his own pocket. Flores spent $3,068 of the $6,700 she received in contributions, records show.


The second largest spender was Team Liberty member Armin Garza, who reported expenditures totaling $24,570. His losing opponent in the race for the Place 5 seat on the board, Esperanza “Espie” Ochoa, spent $3,240 of the $8,600 in contributions she received. Ochoa received 5,362 votes to Garza’s 5,384 votes – a 22 vote margin.


Salinas reported spending $16,370 in his race for the Place 6 seat on the board. Two others were also vying for the seat. Opponent Domingo “Mingo” Villarreal reported $8,682 in expenditures. Villarreal reported he borrowed $10,000 to finance his campaign in addition to the $6,500 in contributions he received. And opponent Oscar F. Martinez reported spending $2,923 in personal funds in his losing race.


Team Liberty member Claudia Ochoa reported spending $7,447 in her winning race for the Place 4 seat on the school board.  She also reported the largest single contribution of $9,000 from the McAllen law firm of Perdue, Brandon, Fielder, Collins and Mott, LLP. It was listed as an in-kind contribution for advertising expenses.


Ochoa defeated challengers Laura Avendaño and Anslemo Barrera Jr.  Avendaño reported spending $1,186 of the $2,750 contributed to her campaign. Barrera reported spending $1,320 from his personal funds.


There were some discrepancies in the reports filed by Salinas for the period between Oct. 1, 2016 and Oct. 31, none of the addresses of his 11 contributors or 20 payees were included in the reports.  During that period Salinas paid $8,670 in “salaries” to seven individuals while spending $5,100 on printing and advertising.


Contacted Wednesday, Salinas said he left responsibility of his reports to treasurer Juan J. “J.J.” Garza.  Garza was recently suspended from his position as executive director of the La Joya Housing authority. The suspension followed Garza’s criminal indictment in an alleged bid-rigging scheme. A hearing on the case is scheduled on Jan. 25 in Hidalgo County District Court.


Both Garza and Salinas said they plan to file amended finance reports containing the addresses by the next reporting deadline on Jan. 15. Garza said he did not include the addresses because it was cumbersome and he didn’t think anyone would notice. He said he did not believe the Texas Ethics Commission would bother to investigate, saying it once ignored his complaint that an opponent in a previous school board race had not filed the required campaign finance reports.


Under Texas law a candidate must include the name and address of all persons who contribute $50 or more. The Texas Ethics Commission has the authority to enforce a civil penalty for incomplete or incorrect reports. The penalty for each questionable contribution is up to $5,000 or three times the amount in question, whichever is greater, said Ian Steusloff, TEC general counsel.


Steusloff said investigations in 99 percent of the cases are the result of sworn complaints from residents and about one percent occur after a county attorney has alleged criminal offenses.  Steusloff said the TEC has not received any complaints about Salinas’ reports.

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