Peñitas Chief of Staff Andy Morales returned to work Monday — six days after the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested him.
Local governments usually suspend employees or place them on administrative leave after they’re arrested. The city of Peñitas, though, welcomed Morales back to City Hall.
“Mr. Morales is not being accused of any wrongdoing involving the City of Peñitas. Mr. Morales deserves a presumption of innocence as afforded by the legal system of the United States,” according to a statement released by Peñitas City Attorney Jose L. Caso. “Mr. Morales has returned to his duties as an employee of the City of Peñitas. The City looks forward to Mr. Morales’ continued employment so he can continue helping the City of Peñitas grow and prosper.”
Attorney Ricardo “Rick” Montalvo of McAllen, who represents Morales, declined to comment.
Andres “Andy” Morales, 42, of Mission is charged with making false statements when he purchased firearms.
Morales bought weapons from Glick Twins, a gun store in Pharr, during January and July 2017, according to the criminal complaint against him. When he purchased the weapons, Morales filled out ATF Form 4473.
The form asked: “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 was convicted of a felony in August 2006. He answered “No” anyway.
The ATF arrested Morales on May 11. What prompted the ATF to re-examine the four-year-old form remains unclear.
Information that surfaced on May 13, when a judge held a detention hearing for Morales, raised additional questions.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr., who is prosecuting the case, said that Morales claimed he made “approximately $580,000” last year.
When the ATF searched Morales’ house, agents observed $30,000 to $40,000 in cash, Lopez said. They didn’t count or seize the money.
Peñitas pays Morales a nearly $66,000 annual salary. Montalvo said that Morales also provided “consulting services” to local governments.
News that Morales had been arrested became the talk of Peñitas.
“It doesn’t look very good for the city,” said former Mayor Marcos Ochoa, who ran against Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez in May 2019.
Lopez and the City Council must decide how to handle the situation, Marcos Ochoa said, and make the best decision for Peñitas.
“What you hear out there is people are not very happy, I can say that,” Marcos Ochoa said. “The mayor and the council have a job to do and it’s really up to them.”
Former La Joya school board Trustee Arnold Ochoa, who ran against Armin Garza in the May 2015 Peñitas City Council election, said that Morales shouldn’t return to work.
“I want to know: What are they thinking?” Arnold Ochoa said. “It’s going to raise a lot of questions because the citizens — how do we know there’s no other illegal actions happening within the city that they’re trying to cover up?”
City Hall is controlled by Morales, Lopez and a small number of powerful people, Arnold Ochoa said. They make decisions without public input and attempt to intimidate anyone who challenges them.
“It’s a mafia in there,” Arnold Ochoa said. “I’m sorry to say it, but the citizens lost control.”
Mario Chapa, who represented Peñitas on the Agua Special Utility District board, said that Morales — and anyone else charged with a crime — should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
“Knowing what I know about the politics and everything else around here, that’s a tough stance to take,” said Chapa, who lost the May 2014 utility board election to Lopez.
Nevertheless, Chapa said that suspending Morales would run afoul of that principle.
“Am I disappointed that the suspicion is even there? Yeah, I’m damn disappointed,” Chapa said. “Because I want to believe in all of my city management: the mayor, the City Council and any employees that they hire.”