New information surfaced last week about a series of suspicious land deals in La Joya.
After the Progress Times filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, the city released 24 pages of financial records and other documents on June 6. The documents reveal that La Joya purchased land owned by the city administrator’s sister — apparently without an independent appraisal, any conflict-of-interest paperwork or notifying the mayor.
“I’m pretty sure that the city did not approve buying that property,” said Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas.
Who, exactly, approved the purchase is a mystery.
Attorney Rick Salinas of Mission, who represents City Administrator Mike Alaniz, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“If it had been brought to me, I would never have approved it,” Mayor Salinas said. “Unless it had been brought to the Council.”
FBI agents interviewed key players about the land deals, according to three people with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke with the Progress Times on the condition of anonymity.
“The FBI can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation,” Special Agent Michelle Lee said in a statement.
The series of suspicious land deals started in August 2012, when Hidalgo County held a tax auction.
According to records kept by the Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office, the La Joya Economic Development Corp. purchased five lots in the Palmshores Subdivision, a neighborhood located northwest of Walker Lake.
The city of La Joya paid $9,600 for Lot 203 and $8,500 for Lot 218, according to records released under the Texas Public Information Act.
Neither the city nor the La Joya EDC, however, actually received the property.
Alaniz took possession of Lot 203, Lot 217 and Lot 218. His sister, Blanca Valdez, took possession of Lot 112 and Lot 219.
Based on documents released by the city and deeds filed with the Hidalgo County Clerk’s Office, it appears Alaniz and his sister purchased property for themselves and the city during the same tax auction.
After the auction, the city paid for Lot 218, which Alaniz kept for himself. Alaniz or his sister paid for Lot 217, which Alaniz later claimed that he purchased for La Joya.
He attempted to fix the mistake in August 2015, three years after the auction. Corrected deeds filed with the county Clerk’s Office transferred Lot 203 and Lot 217 to La Joya.
Problems created by the property mix-up, though, didn’t stop in 2015.
Alaniz contacted Hiram Gutierrez, an attorney with Amarillo-based law firm Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott, which collects delinquent property taxes for La Joya, in November 2016.
“I need your help to clear this pressing matter on these two (2) lots that have always belonged to the city of La Joya,” according to an email Alaniz wrote to Gutierrez at 2:46 p.m. on Nov. 22, 2016. “Years back when we (city) purchased this two properties during an auction held by the county. I being the City Administrator purchased those properties for the city and was able to purchase two other lots for me personally.”
Alaniz didn’t identify the lots he purchased for himself.
According to county records, Alaniz took possession of three lots after the auction — not four. The email may indicate that Alaniz owned part of Lot 112 or Lot 219, which had been placed under his sister’s name.
Alaniz asked Gutierrez to correct the mistake involving city property.
“Hiram I don’t know why the confusion, but apparently your firm or the county placed this two lots #217 and #203 that belong to me personally,” Alaniz wrote. “I have sent correspondence numerous times to clear this matter, but as you can see we continue to receive ‘Notice of Tax Lien’ for these lots.”
Gutierrez said he remembered the email but couldn’t assist Alaniz. Another law firm, Austin-based Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, handled the August 2012 auction.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Gutierrez said, recalling what he told Alaniz. “It needs to be fixed by Linebarger.”
The mix-up also presented Alaniz with another problem.
La Joya had paid $8,500 for Lot 218, which Alaniz kept for himself. Alaniz or his sister had paid $5,500 for Lot 217, which actually belonged to La Joya.
To correct the mistake, he needed to transfer Lot 217 to La Joya and pay the difference between the price of Lot 217 and Lot 218.
Someone calculated the price difference — $3,000 — on a copy of the original check from August 2012. The city released the check and the handwritten notes under the Public Information Act.
Mayor Salinas said that Alaniz made the payment during 2019, about four years after he became aware of the mistake.
“He told me he did,” Mayor Salinas said. “I didn’t see the check. I didn’t see any money order, but he said he had done it.”
Another lot purchased in August 2012 prompted additional questions.
Alaniz’s sister, Blanca Valdez, purchased Lot 112 for $9,700, according to records kept by the Precinct 3 Constable’s Office.
In February 2017, the city purchased Lot 112 from Valdez. Documents released by the city don’t reveal who authorized the purchase.
City Engineer Dario V. Guerra said Alaniz contacted him about purchasing Lot 112. After they talked, Guerra wrote a letter suggesting that La Joya acquire the property for infrastructure improvements.
Guerra said that Alaniz didn’t tell him who owned Lot 112.
La Joya paid $39,500 for the property on Feb. 23, 2017. Hidalgo County Appraisal District records valued the property at $11,321.
Documents released by the city don’t include an independent appraisal or any records documenting how Alaniz handled the conflict of interest.
Whether or not Alaniz owned part of Lot 112 also remains unclear.
Alaniz paid the tax bill for Lot 112 in January 2017, about a month before the city purchased the property, according to Hidalgo County Tax Office records. The email he sent to Perdue Brandon, the law firm that collects delinquent property taxes for La Joya, suggested that Alaniz owned all or part of a property that had been placed under his sister’s name.
Mayor Salinas said he didn’t think La Joya conducted an independent appraisal and hadn’t seen any paperwork disclosing the conflict of interest.
“I’ve asked Kennedy to investigate it,” Mayor Salinas said, referring to City Attorney Kennedy Salinas.
The situation presents a legal and ethical minefield, said former Pharr City Manager Fred Sandoval.
“First and foremost, you just don’t do it,” Sandoval said. “It’s just not a good practice.”
If the city exhausts all possible alternatives and must purchase the property, the city should disclose the conflict of interest, request an independent appraisal of the property and remove the city administrator from the process, Sandoval said. To avoid the appearance of impropriety, the city could discuss the purchase at a public meeting.
“And then, of course, they vote on it,” Sandoval said.
Alaniz submitted a resignation letter last month after discussing the matter with the City Commission. His last day at City Hall is June 30.