Peñitas chief of staff arrested on federal firearms charge

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested Peñitas Chief of Staff Andy Morales — a major player in western Hidalgo County politics — on Tuesday.

Agents charged Andres “Andy” Morales, 42, of Mission with making false statements when he purchased firearms in 2017.

“Andy’s name comes up a lot in a lot of deals as a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker,” said attorney Javier Peña of Edinburg, who keeps tabs on western Hidalgo County politics.

Morales couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

ATF Special Agent Deon Washington and Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, confirmed that Morales had been arrested.

The Texas Department of Public Safety assisted the ATF, according to Lt. Christopher Olivarez, a spokesman for the South Texas Region.

Andy Morales

Andres “Andy” Morales, 42, of Mission. (Photo via Facebook.)

Morales is well known in Hidalgo County political circles.

He’s aligned with La Joya school board President Oscar “Coach” Salinas, La Joya school board Vice President Armin Garza and Peñitas Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez.

Together with members of the Agua Special Utility District board and the Peñitas City Council, they formed a political coalition that dominated western Hidalgo County politics during the past six years.

“It was different players for different situations, but it was always the same group,” said attorney Rick Salinas of Mission.

Rick Salinas investigated the Peñitas coalition in 2018, when he represented his father, former Mission Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas, in an election contest.

Armando “Doc” O’caña had defeated Beto Salinas during a runoff election. Members of the Peñitas coalition, including Morales, donated money to O’caña during the runoff.

Rick Salinas accused Morales and other members of the Peñitas coalition of supporting a conspiracy to steal the election. He filed an election contest and requested a new runoff election.

“I think the 2018 race was something they needed to win to expand their influence,” Rick Salinas said. “We’d never seen anything like that before.”

Beto Salinas won at trial, but the 13th Court of Appeals overturned the decision. O’caña remained mayor.

While the election lawsuit transfixed Mission, the case had little impact on western Hidalgo County.

Morales contributed thousands to candidates aligned with the Peñitas coalition and played a key role in their political campaigns.

He served as treasurer of the Liberty Executive Committee, a political action committee that supported candidates in western Hidalgo County. The committee spent nearly $69,000 in 2017 without filing a single campaign finance report.

Morales also served as campaign treasurer for Peñitas Mayor Rigo Lopez and members of the City Council.

In 2015, when Lopez became mayor, Peñitas created a chief of staff position for Morales. The position, which started as a five-month contract, became a full-time job with a salary of nearly $66,000.

Morales remains employed by Peñitas, which hasn’t suspended him or placed him on any type of administrative leave.

“All the tasks that he was working on are being delegated to other employees,” said Peñitas City Attorney Jose L. Caso.

Peñitas is waiting for more information, Caso said, before making a decision about Morales.

His connections go beyond politics.

One of his brothers, Alejandro, is the assistant police chief in Peñitas. Another, Daniel, is the district director for state Rep. Oscar Longoria. And his brother-in-law, Homer Tijerina, is the president of the Agua Special Utility District board.

Morales and Tijerina, though, don’t see eye-to-eye on politics. They’ve been at odds for years and supported rival slates in the November 2020 utility board election.

When they weren’t campaigning, members of the Peñitas coalition partnered on business deals and hunted together.

Morales created a company, RGV Redlight LLC, that provided “fleet management” services to local governments.

The La Joya Independent School District and the Agua Special Utility District hired RGV Redlight, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act.

RGV Redlight worked in conjunction with Government Asset Services, a company owned by Peñitas City Manager Omar Romero. They partnered on a proposal to create a police department for the Valley View Independent School District.

Members of the Peñitas coalition also hunted together at the Santa Cruz Ranch in Starr County.

A photo gallery published by the ranch shows Garza, Romero, Lopez and Morales posing for trophy photos with exotic animals. Morales is holding a hunting rifle.

Under federal law, anyone convicted of a felony may not possess firearms or ammunition.

Morales pleaded guilty to possession of more than 5 pounds but less than 50 pounds of marijuana, a third-degree felony, in March 2001, according to docket information published by the Hidalgo County District Clerk’s Office. Morales received deferred adjudication, which allowed him to avoid a conviction.

Documents from the 20-year-old case haven’t been scanned and uploaded to the Hidalgo County court records system.

Officers arrested Morales again in December 2005, when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration contacted the Mission Police Department about a Ford Mustang possibly loaded with “illegal narcotics.” They seized a blue duffel bag stuffed with nearly 84 pounds of marijuana.

Morales pleaded guilty to possession of more than 50 pounds but less than 2,000 pounds of marijuana, a second-degree felony, in August 2006.

State District Judge Fidencio Guerra Jr. sentenced Morales to five years in prison but suspended the sentence and placed Morales on community supervision for five years.

What prompted the ATF to scrutinize Morales remains unclear.

“In connection with an investigation,” the ATF obtained forms that Morales signed when he purchased guns in 2017, according to the criminal complaint against him.

Morales bought the guns at Glick Twins in Pharr. He filled out ATF Form 4473, which asks a series of questions designed to weed out people ineligible to purchase firearms.

The form asks: “Have you ever been convicted in any court of a felony, or any other crime for which the judge could have imprisoned you for more than one year, even if you received a shorter sentence including probation?”

Morales answered no.

“MORALES’s false statement on the ATF Form 4473s regarding his status as a convicted felon was a fact that was material to the lawfulness of the sale of firearms by Glick Twins,” according to the criminal complaint. On Tuesday, when he was arrested, “Morales informed ATF Agents that he was working on his pardon but never got it.”

The criminal complaint doesn’t provide any details about the investigation that prompted agents to review his four-year-old ATF forms.

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