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La Joya Housing Authority may be under federal scrutiny — again

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General may be scrutinizing the La Joya Housing Authority — again.

HUD Office of Inspector General Special Agent Walter Zapata visited the housing authority headquarters on Oct. 24, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

hud oiglogo“We do not confirm or deny any investigative actions that may or may not be underway,” said Darryl Madden, a spokesman for the HUD Office of Inspector General.

Whether or not FBI agents accompanied Zapata remains unclear.

“Pursuant to policy, I can’t confirm or deny any action on part of our personnel,” said Special Agent Michelle Lee, a spokeswoman for the FBI. “Nor can I comment on what they may have been doing if they were there.”

Regardless, the HUD Office of the Inspector General knows La Joya well.

In the late 1990s, then-Executive Director Jose Reynaldo Trevino and Section 8 Director Ovidio Ramirez embezzled more than $195,000 from the housing authority.

“The two defendants duplicated Section 8 landlord checks and used the proceeds for their personal benefit,” according to a semiannual report the HUD Office of Inspector General submitted to Congress.

Trevino and Ramirez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States.

After the scandal, La Joya Mayor William “Billy” Leo approached Juan Jose “J.J.” Garza about the housing authority position.

The board hired Garza in July 1999, according to personnel records. He learned on the job.

Seventeen years later, though, the HUD Office of Inspector General returned to La Joya and arrested Garza on bid rigging charges.

The FBI and the HUD Office of Inspector General also accused Garza of accepting kickbacks, awarding contracts to friends and misusing a credit card.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa sentenced Garza to 37 months in federal prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

After federal agents arrested Garza in September 2016, the housing authority needed a new director.

Frances A. Salinas, the daughter of La Joya Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas and City Commissioner Mary Salinas, started working closely with Interim Executive Director Melissa Armijo.

They clashed. Armijo quit. And Frances Salinas became the interim executive director.

The housing authority board, which is appointed by the mayor, supervises the executive director. HUD considered the arrangement a conflict of interest and refused to pay Frances Salinas with federal money.

Bank records, however, show the housing authority paid Frances Salinas with non-federal funds.

Board Chairwoman Maricruz Sifuentes signed a $10,000 check to Frances Salinas in March 2018, according to bank records. Frances Salinas signed smaller checks to herself.

The bank records also showed a series of cash withdrawals from the nonprofit account and the low-rent account. Sifuentes and board Vice Chairwoman Sylvia Garces Valdez said they never authorized cash withdrawals from housing authority bank accounts.

The board fired Frances Salinas on Nov. 1.

Attorney Dennis Ramirez of Donna, who represents her, said Frances Salinas hadn’t been contacted by the HUD Office of Inspector General.

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