This article originally appeared in the Friday Aug. 2, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development dispatched a team to western Hidalgo County on Monday to determine whether or not the La Joya Housing Authority is complying with federal regulations.
A three-person team from the HUD Departmental Enforcement Center arrived in La Joya on Monday afternoon. After reviewing housing authority records, interviewing personnel and meeting with members of the board, the team will prepare a report for the HUD Office of Public Housing.
The housing authority will provide the Departmental Enforcement Center team with any documents it requests, said Alcazar, who accepted the interim executive director position last month.
Alcazar said she asked employees to answer questions from HUD and encouraged members of the board, including board President John Pena, to meet with the Departmental Enforcement Center team.
Pena didn’t respond to a request for comment.
If the Departmental Enforcement Center team finds violations of HUD rules and regulations, the report could trigger sanctions against the people responsible.
HUD may punish the people responsible by prohibiting them from conducting business with the federal government. The punishment, known as debarment, typically lasts three years.
If the Departmental Enforcement Center team finds serious financial, management or ethical problems, the report could become the basis for receivership.
The mayor appoints the five-member housing authority board, which sets policy and supervises the executive director. When HUD places a housing authority in receivership, the federal government supervises day-to-day operations — removing the mayor and the board from the decision-making process.
It’s extremely rare for HUD to place a housing authority in receivership.
The HUD Office of Receivership Oversight describes administrative receivership as “a last resort option” for a housing authority with severe problems. According to the HUD website, fewer than four housing authorities nationwide are in receivership.
In La Joya, however, severe problems aren’t hard to find.
During the 1990s, Executive Director Jose Reynaldo Trevino embezzled nearly $195,000 from the housing authority, according to a report published by the HUD Office of Inspector General. He pleaded guilty and served time in federal prison.
The board replaced Trevino with Juan Jose “J.J.” Garza.
In 2016, a grand jury indicted Garza on federal wire fraud charges. He pleaded guilty and received a 37-month sentence.
The board replaced Garza with Frances A. Salinas, the daughter of Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas.
HUD doesn’t allow members of a housing authority board to resign and immediately accept a paid position. The housing authority requested a waiver, but HUD rejected the request.
The arrangement also constituted a clear conflict of interest: Mayor Salinas appointed the members of a board that employed his daughter.
In 2018, the board fired Frances Salinas after members discovered that someone had withdrawn more than $10,000 in cash from housing authority bank accounts. She denied any wrongdoing.
HUD designated the housing authority “troubled” in April, citing poor rent collection, below average occupancy numbers and financial problems.
“The La Joya Housing Authority has a history of corrupt management and poor oversight by the Board of Commissioners,” according to a July 1 letter from HUD to the housing authority. “This history continues as evidenced by the significant deficiencies and material weaknesses noted in the recently issued Single Audit for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2018. As a result, the Authority is in a position of having little to no funds to operate on a monthly basis.”