Roughly five months after the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office started a “review” of severance payments approved by the Agua Special Utility District, the case is now a criminal investigation.
The Texas Rangers consider the case an “active criminal investigation,” according to a statement released by Lt. Johnny Hernandez, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez said he’s comfortable calling the case a criminal investigation, but cautioned that nothing had changed — no smoking gun or bombshell evidence prompted the new label.
“It’s just about semantics,” Rodriguez said.
Prosecutors started the probe during November, when the District Attorney’s Office sent the utility district a grand jury subpoena.
The subpoena requested all records showing severance payments to La Joya school board President Oscar “Coach” Salinas, the community relations coordinator for the utility; and school board Vice President Armin Garza, a project manager for the utility.
Salinas and Garza received severance payments last year, when the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 814.
Authored by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, the bill prohibited elected officials from hiring each other.
For example, if any member of the utility board worked for the school district, the utility district couldn’t employ school board trustees.
A majority of the seven-member utility board worked for the school district. Salinas and Garza faced a decision: resign from the school board or remain employed.
They decided to stay on the school board. Attorneys negotiated severance payments, which allowed them to leave amicably and settled any potential legal claims.
Salinas received $221,000, according to utility district records. Garza got $268,000.
Concern about the six-figure severance payments, which the utility district kept secret for months, prompted questions from the District Attorney’s Office.
The Texas Rangers “joined the review” in January, according to a news release from the District Attorney’s Office.
Rodriguez said he called the case a “review” rather than a criminal investigation because prosecutors had just started collecting evidence and didn’t want to unfairly malign the utility district.
“That’s why we approached it as an inquiry,” Rodriguez said. “And then, depending on the inquiry, it’s either going to develop into a criminal investigation or it’s not.”
Days after the announcement, prosecutors sent the utility district four more subpoenas.
“On our end, we’re still cooperating with what’s requested of us,” said attorney Frank Garza, who represents the utility district. “And as late as this week we were advised it was still a ‘review.’”
Rodriguez said prosecutors also requested records from the La Joya Independent School District.
When the utility district approved the severance payments, four of the seven people who served on the utility board worked for the school district.
Among the many lines of inquiry prosecutors want to explore is whether or not the school board rewarded members of the utility board for authorizing the severance agreements.
“That was a possibility, an issue, that we’re still looking at,” Rodriguez said.