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Former La Joya school board trustee sentenced to 37 months for wire fraud conspiracy

A federal judge sentenced former La Joya school board Trustee J.J. Garza to 37 months in federal prison Wednesday for conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa sentenced Juan Jose “J.J.” Garza, 50, of La Joya — who headed the La Joya Housing Authority and served on the La Joya school board — during a hearing Wednesday morning.

20160923 WEB JJGarzaGarza worked with Armando Jimenez, a cook at Stilettos Cabaret, to rig construction bids at the Alamo Housing Authority and the Donna Housing Authority, according to the indictment. They won contracts worth nearly $45,000.

“My apologies to everyone: People that trust me, the public. None of my intentions were to hurt anybody,” Garza said when he left the federal courthouse. “I just want to say I’m sorry.”

Federal agents arrested Garza and Jimenez in September 2016, when a grand jury indicted them on wire fraud charges.

Jimenez worked in the kitchen at Stilettos Cabaret, the strip club on North Sugar Road. After meeting Garza, they cooked up a scheme to rig construction bids.

Garza, who headed the La Joya Housing Authority and owned a construction company, knew how the process worked.

With assistance from lazy and corrupt executive directors, they rigged the competitive bidding process for construction contracts awarded by the Alamo Housing Authority and the Donna Housing Authority, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristen Rees, who summarized the indictment during the sentencing hearing. Garza submitted multiple bids under different company names, which created the appearance of competition.

Along with submitting fraudulent bids, Rees said Garza bribed the executive director of the Donna Housing Authority for a construction contract. The Donna Housing Authority didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Alamo Housing Authority Executive Director Mary Vela said she allowed Garza to solicit bids on her behalf for a small construction project.

Garza submitted three fraudulent bids, including a bid from Crane Construction, which he owned, according to the indictment. The Alamo Housing Authority accepted the bids, apparently unconcerned Garza had both solicited the bids and submitted a bid himself.

“I was naive and trusting,” Vela said, adding that she had never solicited construction bids before. “I feel awful being in this situation.”

Jimenez, who didn’t own a legitimate construction company, won both contracts. Garza hired subcontractors to handle the work.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development paid them nearly $45,000.

“Mr. Jimenez, if anything, was nothing more than a glorified gopher for Mr. Garza,” said attorney Marco A. De Luna of McAllen, who represented Jimenez.

Garza stumbled through the sentencing hearing, contradicting himself and struggling to answer questions from the judge.

While he pleaded guilty, Garza said many statements by the government were incorrect. He submitted a six-page, single-spaced letter that addressed everything from western Hidalgo County politics to supposed problems with the case against him.

The letter apparently prompted attorney Roberto J. “Bobby Joe” Yzaguirre, who represented Garza, to withdraw from the case last year.

Concerned about contradictions between the letter and what Garza said during the plea hearing, Hinojosa repeatedly asked him whether or not he wanted to withdraw the guilty plea.

Garza said he wanted to proceed and promptly reversed himself, admitting to things he hadn’t remembered moments earlier.

The judge admonished Garza for breaking the law and violating the trust placed in him by members of the public.

“Mr. Garza, I’m sorry you placed yourself in this situation,” Hinojosa said.

Jimenez quickly admitted guilt and apologized to the judge, adding that he hadn’t understood the consequences of rigging construction bids. Hinojosa sentenced him to 18 months.

Garza and Jimenez must surrender to the U.S. Marshals Service by June 1 to start serving their prison sentences.

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