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The La Joya school board authorized district administrators to negotiate a contract with three new attorneys Wednesday night.
Trustees authorized district administrators to negotiate a contract with state Rep. Sergio Muñoz Jr., Palmview City Attorney Eric Flores and his wife, Victoria.
“I strongly have always believed that we should give a chance to our own. Our people from within our district and within our area,” said school board Trustee Oscar “Coach” Salinas. “And, then again, if our people can’t do it, then you have to go out and look for the best-qualified person. Such as we’re doing right now for the superintendent.”
The proposal caused a stir in western Hidalgo County.
Eric Flores is the son of former state Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores Sr., who remains an influential player in school board politics. Sergio Muñoz Jr. is the son of former state Rep. Sergio Muñoz Sr.
Muñoz Jr. and an attorney named Martin Frankel previously served as bond counsel for the school district.
Three transactions they handled attracted scrutiny from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which determined that a paralegal who worked for them defrauded the district.
The Securities and Exchange Commission slapped the paralegal, Mario Hinojosa, and his company, Barcelona Strategies, with an $180,000 civil penalty last year.
“During LJISD’s process of selecting Barcelona as its municipal advisor, Barcelona and Hinojosa overstated and misrepresented their municipal finance experience to LJISD,” according to the cease-and-desist order published by the Securities and Exchange Commission on May 9, 2018. “Barcelona and Hinojosa also failed to disclose that Hinojosa was employed by the attorneys who served as bond counsel for all three bond offerings. By misrepresenting their municipal finance experience and failing to disclose the conflict of interest with bond counsel, Barcelona and Hinojosa violated the federal securities laws and the rules of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board.”
Questions also surfaced about whether or not Eric Flores is qualified to advise the school board. He graduated from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in December 2017.
Eric Flores said his experience isn’t limited to law school. In the U.S. Army, he managed multi-million dollar budgets and supervised more than 100 soldiers.
The partnership with Muñoz Jr., an experienced attorney and public servant, provides the district with two capable attorneys, Eric Flores said, adding that they offer experience and real-world education other lawyers can’t match.
“Our experiences together, our backgrounds together. That makes a legal dream team,” Eric Flores said.
If the school board had concerns about Flores and Muñoz, trustees didn’t voice them Wednesday night. The motion to negotiate a contract passed without any opposition.
What the new attorneys would charge remains unclear.
The school board agreed to pay attorney Jaime “Jerry” Muñoz a monthly retainer of $19,500 from January 2019 to January 2020, according to a copy of the contract released under the Texas Public Information Act.
Other attorneys handle specialized legal work.
Austin-based firm O’Hanlon, Demerath & Castillo handles public information requests and education law issues. Amarillo-based law firm Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins and Mott collects delinquent property taxes. And a wide array of attorneys handle litigation for the district.
After analyzing check registers published by the district, Eric Flores said he identified about $486,000 in legal bills last year.
“Now, that’s only looking at the check registry, so it is a guesstimate. I can’t tell you for a certainty that that is the number,” Eric Flores said. “But whatever the number is, we are willing to come underneath it. Because our goal is to save the district money.”
The school board should judge attorneys on their merits and set aside any gossip about favoritism and family connections, said Salinas, the school board trustee who motioned to negotiate with Flores and Muñoz.
“I’m going to give you myself as an example. Whatever happens here or whatever they say about me on Facebook — 99.99 percent of it is a lie,” Salinas said. “It should not affect my son that is in U-T right now. It wouldn’t be fair to him, you know?”
Whenever possible, Salinas said the school district should offer opportunities to locals.
“I’m always trying to take care of our people. And our kids. And, of course, not necessarily saying that we’re not opening the doors for everybody else. Our record will show that we do,” Salinas said. “I want to wish them the best of luck. And, hopefully, this can be a lesson to a lot of our kids: If you continue and you follow your dreams and you work hard, at the end of the day maybe not La Joya ISD but a school or an entity or an agency can sometimes, maybe at one point, hire you.”