Texas Rangers say they aren’t finished with Agua SUD investigation

The Texas Rangers aren’t finished with the Agua Special Utility District.

Just six weeks after the Hidalgo District Attorney’s Office closed the case — which focused on payments to school board trustees who worked for the utility district — the Texas Rangers assigned a new investigator.

aguasudThe Texas Rangers informed the District Attorney’s Office about the decision on Tuesday.

“I’m not sure what it is, exactly, they want to go look at,” said District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, adding that prosecutors will provide any assistance requested by the Texas Rangers.

Rodriguez said Texas Ranger Bobby Garcia will handle the new investigation.

The Department of Public Safety hired Garcia in 1994, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records. He frequently handles high-profile investigations and public corruption cases in Hidalgo County.

During the past decade, Garcia tackled the public corruption case against former Sullivan City police Chief Miguel Martinez, an aggravated robbery committed by the Panama Unit and several incidents involving state troopers.

It’s unclear whether or not Garcia will replace Texas Ranger Reid Rackley, who handled the original investigation, or work alongside him.

Rackley is a relatively new member of the Texas Rangers.

The Department of Public Safety hired Rackley in 2008. He worked for the Criminal Investigations Division in Austin before joining the elite Texas Rangers division in late 2016 or early 2017, according to DPS News, a newsletter for agency employees.

Before taking the utility district case, Rackley investigated assaults on Border Patrol agents, tracked down stolen Department of Public Safety surveillance cameras and assisted the Starr County Sheriff’s Office with a murder investigation, among other assignments.

The District Attorney’s Office started investigating the utility district last year. The Texas Rangers joined the investigation in January.

They initially focused on the payments, which resulted from a fight between the utility board and state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa.

A majority of the seven-member utility board works for the La Joya Independent School District.

When the utility district hired school board trustees Oscar “Coach” Salinas and Armin Garza, the state senator said he became concerned about cronyism.

Hinojosa authored Senate Bill 814, which applied only to the utility district, to address the situation.

The bill prohibited elected officials from hiring each other. If it passed, they would be forced to choose between public service and public employment.

Hinojosa said the bill would prevent the school board, which is a political powerhouse in western Hidalgo County, from exerting inappropriate influence over the utility board.

Western Hidalgo County politicians, though, opposed the bill. They said the hiring restrictions unfairly dictacted where they could work. Some believed Hinojosa had ulterior motives.

While lawmakers debated the bill, utility district Executive Director Oscar Cancino approved five-year employment contracts with Salinas and Garza — an extraordinary move, considering that not even Cancino himself had an employment contract at the time.

The Texas Legislature passed the bill just a few weeks later.

Salinas and Garza hired an attorney. Faced with the threat of litigation, the utility district settled any potential claims resulting from the employment contracts.

Salinas received $221,000, according to utility district records. Garza got $268,000.

After reviewing the settlement agreements, the District Attorney’s Office closed the case on July 13.

“Based on the information we have obtained, I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to obtain convictions,” Assistant District Attorney John Ball wrote to Rackley. “If additional credible evidence comes to light, we are amenable to reopening this investigation.”

The Texas Rangers, however, apparently never considered the case closed — even though the Department of Public Safety released records from the investigation, including the report and video interviews with witnesses.

“It’s almost as if someone in Austin is pushing this investigation for other reasons,” said attorney Javier Peña, who represents the utility district, adding that he didn’t understand why the Texas Rangers apparently left questions unanswered during the first investigation. “Sounds political to me.”

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