This article appeared in the April 2 issue of the Progress Times.
A man charged in the La Joya corruption scandal may switch attorneys just weeks before trial, delaying the case indefinitely.
Ramiro Alaniz, 39, of La Joya is accused of working with former Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas and his daughter, Frances A. Salinas, to siphon money from a La Joya Economic Development Corp. project.
Attorney Gregorio R. Lopez, who represents Alaniz, filed a motion to withdraw on March 9. Jury selection is tentatively scheduled for May 4.
“I’m concerned about it because this case is set for trial in May and it’s an old case — it’s actually one of the oldest active cases on the court’s docket, and I want to get it tried,” said U.S. District Judge Randy Crane, who held a hearing on the motion Monday morning. “And so I’m hesitant just to let somebody withdraw here at the 11th hour.”
The motion to withdraw apparently resulted from a discussion between Alaniz and Lopez about money.
Alaniz paid $2,500 to Lopez in November 2019. With the trial scheduled to start in May, they had a follow-up conversation about the cost.
“I told Mr. Alaniz that if he wanted to have a trial, which he’s indicated to me that he does, I’ve told him that it’s a multi-defendant case,” Lopez said. “And what kind of time commitment it’s going to require.”
Along with Alaniz, a grand jury indicted Fito Salinas, Frances Salinas and Sylvia Garces Valdez, a former public relations consultant for the city of La Joya.
Alaniz worked for Frances Salinas at the La Joya Housing Authority, according to the indictment. Frances Salinas also made Alaniz the general contractor on a project funded by the La Joya EDC.
They worked together to solicit kickbacks from subcontractors, according to the indictment. In an attempt to hide the kickbacks, Alaniz told subcontractors to inflate their invoices.
All four defendants pleaded not guilty.
“From what people have told me, I expect at least one, probably two, to plead out on this case, leaving only two,” Crane said, adding later: “Leaving Mr. Alaniz and somebody else, the ex-mayor, I think, to go to trial.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarina S. DiPiazza said she anticipated the trial would take about two weeks.
A two-week trial would be a major time commitment for Lopez, who represents Alaniz. After they discussed the cost, Lopez filed a motion to withdraw.
“And I guess what he needs to hear right now, judge, is whether or not he’s likely to qualify for a public defender or an attorney at the government’s expense,” Lopez said.
Alaniz said he’s currently unemployed and attempting to support his elderly parents.
“They’re disabled,” Alaniz said. “And I live with them here, at their home.”
Documents provided to the court show Alaniz collects unemployment and owns a lot in La Joya, where he’s building a house. Alaniz is required to pay child support and also makes payments on a truck.
“He may have a cash flow issue because he’s got some payments,” Crane said. “But he’s got significant assets.”
Crane suggested that Alaniz sell the truck and consider borrowing money from family members to pay his attorney.
“Mr. Alaniz, again, if you don’t qualify for appointed counsel, you’re going to have to hire another lawyer,” Crane said.
Alaniz said he would attempt to scrape together the money. Crane scheduled a follow-up hearing for April 5.
“I need you to make more of an effort. It doesn’t sound like you’ve made any effort, any sincere effort, recently,” Crane said. “So see what you can do.”