The FBI may be investigating a pandemic assistance program managed by the city of La Joya.
The city provided an FBI agent with information about the La Joya CARES Utility Subsidy Assistance Program on Wednesday, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act. La Joya spent nearly $54,000 on the program.
Asked why La Joya provided documents to an FBI agent, City Attorney Roberto Jackson released a statement on Thursday afternoon.
“Regarding yesterday’s visit by special agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation: We don’t know exactly what they were doing at City Hall, but this administration stands for the principle of law and order,” according to the statement. “We ran on a platform of accountability. Hence, this administration will continue to fully cooperate with all law enforcement agencies and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law any and all who may have perpetrated acts of fiscal malfeasance against our community.”
Special Agent Michelle Lee, a spokeswoman for the FBI, declined to comment.
La Joya provided the FBI with a three-page summary of the program on Wednesday.
Under the program, La Joya allowed residents who fell behind on utility bills to apply for assistance. Residents could receive a maximum of $100.
“Payments will be released to Residents in the form of a credit on a debit card, which must be used exclusively for utility payment(s) to the City of La Joya Utility Department or Agua Special Utility District (Agua SUD),” according to documents that La Joya provided to the FBI.
La Joya purchased 1,010 gift cards from iPay Solutions, a McAllen-based company, in September.
The city paid $3.15 per gift card and a $1,000 setup fee, according to an invoice from iPay Solutions released by the city.
La Joya funded the gift cards with $49,500, which the city transferred to Usio, a San Antonio-based payment processing company.
Before residents could receive a gift card, they were required to complete an application, said City Manager Jacqueline Bazan.
The application requested proof of unemployment from the Texas Workforce Commission, a water bill and an account number.
La Joya didn’t create a list of people who received the gift cards, Bazan said, but the utility department kept their applications.
Bazan said that she hadn’t personally reviewed the applications or been involved with the distribution of gift cards, which had been handled by the utility department.
While the program assisted people affected by the pandemic, La Joya didn’t actually pay for the gift cards with federal funds.
Hidalgo County allocated $489,000 to La Joya in June 2020, three months after Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
The county, however, didn’t just send the money to La Joya.
Hidalgo County required cities to track pandemic-related expenses and submit requests for reimbursement. Both the county Budget Office and the county Auditor’s Office had to approve the requests.
Cities that spent money on relief programs had to submit reams of documentation and risk the possibility that Hidalgo County would deem the expenses ineligible for reimbursement. To avoid that uncertainty, La Joya and many other cities submitted employee payroll expenses to Hidalgo County for reimbursement instead.
After the county reimbursed the city, La Joya could spend money originally budgeted for payroll on other expenses — including gift cards.
“The whole reasoning for the implementation of the program was to assist the citizens that were in default with their accounts due to some kind of impact with the pandemic and with COVID,” Bazan said.
The city of Palmview and the city of Peñitas also purchased gift cards last year for pandemic assistance programs.
Peñitas purchased 1,000 gift cards from iPay Solutions in September, according to documents released under the Public Information Act. Palmview purchased 1,100 gift cards in October.