A man charged in the La Joya corruption case must either find a new attorney or represent himself at trial.
Ramiro Alaniz, 39, of La Joya — who is accused of participating in a scheme to solicit kickbacks during construction of a La Joya Economic Development Corp. project — hired attorney Gregorio R. Lopez of Edinburg in November 2019.
Alaniz paid Lopez just $2,500. When he wouldn’t pay any additional money, Lopez filed a motion to withdraw.
“This is really serious,” U.S. District Judge Randy Crane said during a hearing Monday. “You’re set for trial next month.”
Crane said he checked with the magistrate courts and pretrial services, which concluded that Alaniz probably wouldn’t qualify for a court-appointed attorney.
Alaniz offered to pay Lopez another $600.
“That’s not even close to being fair or appropriate,” Crane said. “You’re going to have to do better than that. You live at home. You have virtually no expenses. You’re getting a pretty significant unemployment check every week.”
Alaniz owns a lot in La Joya, where he is building a house, according to Hidalgo County property records. The land is appraised at $30,000. The house is appraised at nearly $105,000.
Crane suggested that Alaniz, who lives with his parents, either sell the property or borrow against it.
“I don’t think that would be fair for me, because I’ve been working all my life,” Alaniz said. “That’s all I got, sir. I’ve been helping my parents. I’ve got payments.”
Alaniz said he simply couldn’t pay more than $600. Crane didn’t believe him.
“You’ve got to do better than that. You don’t qualify for appointed counsel. So if you don’t make arrangements with Mr. Lopez, I’m going to let him withdraw and you can represent yourself,” Crane said. “If you want to save some money, you can represent yourself.”
Alaniz initially agreed. Crane read him a list of standard warnings for people who want to represent themselves.
“I must advise you that in my opinion a trained lawyer could defend you far better than you could defend yourself,” Crane said. “I think it is unwise of you to try to represent yourself. You are not familiar with the law. You are not familiar with the court procedure. You are not familiar with the rules of evidence. I strongly urge you not to represent yourself.”
After listening to the warning, Alaniz changed his mind and told Crane he would attempt to reach an agreement with Lopez.
“Judge, if I may propose, if the court can allow me to withdraw,” Lopez said. “If he comes into my office and makes appropriate arrangements with me, judge, I obviously, I believe, can file, again, a notice of appearance.”
Crane granted the motion.
“So, again, as of today, you’re on your own. Because I’m not going to require your lawyer to continue to represent you for free when you have the means to pay him,” Crane told Alaniz. “You may not want to pay him because you don’t want to sell your lot or you don’t want to give him some of your unemployment money or your medical money. That’s a decision that you’re making. And it’s going to be on you. It means you won’t have a lawyer. But you clearly have the ability to hire a lawyer.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarina S. DiPiazza, who is prosecuting the case, said she was concerned about the decision.
“This is really going to cause some issues. He doesn’t have an attorney,” DiPiazza said. “If he decides to represent himself, we’re going to have to give him discovery, which we haven’t done because it’s been provided to the lawyer.”
Crane scheduled a status conference for April 12.
“I urge you to try to work things out with Mr. Lopez. Obviously he’s very knowledgeable about your case. He’s already done a lot of work on your case,” Crane told Alaniz. “But if you can’t work things out with him, you’ve got to hire another lawyer or represent yourself.”