The La Joya Housing Authority paid former Executive Director Frances Salinas thousands during the past nine months — and can’t explain all the payments.
Bank statements released by the housing authority show Salinas received five checks worth $17,800 from March to August. Salinas withdrew another $5,500 from a housing authority account in August and September.
Board Chairwoman Maricruz Sifuentes apparently signed two checks to Salinas, according to the bank records. Salinas wrote another three checks to herself. Bank records also show withdrawals from ATMs in San Antonio.
“I do believe it will be investigated,” said Acting Executive Director Cristi LaJeunesse.
The board fired Salinas on Oct. 10. Asked about the transactions, her attorney sent a statement to the Progress Times.
“Frances Salinas has served as the Interim Executive Director of the La Joya Housing Authority (‘LJHA’) for the past two years. During this time, Ms. Salinas has worked tirelessly to ensure that the LJHA could serve its residents and the community. Ms. Salinas has been in constant communication with the LJHA’s commissioners, staff and HUD to ensure a seamless transition during this time,” according to the statement from attorney Dennis Ramirez of Donna, who represents Salinas in a lawsuit against the housing authority. “The bank statements in question reflect Board approved payments to Ms. Salinas representing her salary under the terms of the contract between the LJHA and Ms. Salinas. Any suspicion, speculation or insinuation otherwise is a mischaracterization of the facts as understood by all parties involved.”
“During Ms. Salinas’ tenure as the Interim Executive Director, she was never reprimanded or disciplined for any reason and her employment record with the LJHA is unblemished. Therefore, the current actions by the LJHA’s commissioners is highly questionable and has forced Ms. Salinas to initiate litigation in order to protect and preserve her employment and reputation within the community she loves dearly,” according to the statement. “The continued attempt to have ‘emergency’ meetings and release information to the media by the LJHA seems retaliatory and malicious in nature. Ms. Salinas looks forward to her upcoming court hearing and is confident those responsible for this will be held accountable for their actions.”
Major questions about the payments to Salinas and other transactions remain unanswered.
When auditors asked the housing authority for meeting minutes, which may explain the transactions, they were told all minutes since Jan. 1, 2017, were lost when a computer crashed.
The Progress Times spent months asking for the records.
On Aug. 28, the Progress Times submitted a public information request asking for all records showing all payments to Salinas.
When the housing authority didn’t respond, the Progress Times filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office. That complaint remains pending.
The housing authority released 17 pages of bank statements on Tuesday.
Labeled “La Joya Housing Non-Profit Corporation,” the bank statements show transactions involving non-federal funds.
On March 19, 2018, the city of La Joya deposited $10,944.51 in the account, according to the bank statements and city records.
With funds provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the housing authority made a payment in lieu of property taxes to the city of La Joya.
In some instances, cities refund that money as a courtesy.
When that money returns to a housing authority, it’s no longer considered federal money — and comes with far fewer restrictions.
Three days later, Sifuentes, the board chairwoman, apparently signed a $10,000 check to Salinas. The memo line read “Aug ‘17 – March ‘18.”
“I have no knowledge of that,” Sifuentes said, adding that she didn’t remember signing any checks to Salinas.
LaJeunesse said she believed the housing authority board approved the $10,000 check to Salinas as compensation for serving as executive director.
Sifuentes signed a $3,000 check to Salinas on July 3, according to bank records. Just six days later, Salinas signed a $2,000 check to herself.
Salinas signed another check to herself for $2,500 on July 27 and a third check for $300 on Aug. 15.
While signing a check to yourself isn’t what auditors would consider a “best practice,” housing authority policy didn’t prohibit it, LaJeunesse said.
Along with the checks, bank records show a $10,000 deposit on Sept. 10 and a series of unexplained ATM withdrawals.
Neither Sifuentes nor LaJeunesse could explain ATM withdrawals from the account, which apparently started in September.
Bank records show a $500 withdrawal from an ATM in La Joya on Sept. 17, a $500 withdrawal from an ATM in San Antonio on Sept. 24 and a $400 withdrawal at an ATM in San Antonio on Sept. 25.
All three withdrawals involved bank fees. The bank statement for September also shows a $7.55 charge for an Uber trip.
“Frances is the only one that I know of that had cards to the account,” LaJeunesse said.