Jury selection is scheduled to start today in the federal corruption case against former La Joya Mayor Fito Salinas.
Jose Adolfo “Fito” Salinas, 82, of La Joya — who served as mayor from 2011 to 2019 — participated in schemes to defraud the city of La Joya and the La Joya Economic Development Corp., according to the indictment. He pleaded not guilty.
Jury selection is scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. Monday at the federal courthouse in McAllen. During a hearing last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarina S. DiPiazza estimated that prosecutors would need about three days to present the evidence against Fito Salinas.
“I expect that we will be done by the end of Wednesday, probably the beginning of Thursday,” DiPiazza said.
Witnesses may include former City Administrator Mike Alaniz, who pleaded guilty to theft in a separate corruption case; Sylvia Garces Valdez, a former public relations consultant for the city who is charged with bribery; and City Attorney Roberto Jackson, who became concerned about corruption at City Hall under the Salinas administration.
Attorney Richard Zayas of Brownsville, who represents Fito Salinas, said he would call witnesses too — including Frances A. Salinas, the mayor’s daughter, who pleaded guilty to participating in a conspiracy to defraud the La Joya EDC.
“It’s my understanding she’s willing to testify,” Zayas said.
The trial will focus on two schemes to defraud the city and one scheme to defraud the La Joya EDC.
The Public Relations Contract
In June 2018, the city agreed to pay a woman named Sylvia Garces Valdez for “professional public relations consulting services.”
Garces Valdez, a local teacher who served on the La Joya Housing Authority board, had no public relations experience. She was, however, a friend of the mayor’s daughter, Frances Salinas.
The contract included an unusual provision.
In addition to $2,000 per month, La Joya agreed to pay Garces Valdez a $12,000 “retainer” when the City Council approved the contract.
Fito Salinas signed the contract on June 12, 2018, according to a copy released under the Texas Public Information Act. La Joya cut a $12,000 check to Garces Valdez the next day.
Garces Valdez paid “approximately $10,000” to Frances Salinas, according to the indictment, “intending to influence and reward Jose Adolfo Salinas, the elected City of La Joya Mayor, for his influence in granting a public relations contract to the Defendant.”
The city fired Garces Valdez in November 2018 after she had a falling-out with Frances Salinas.
Garces Valdez is charged with bribery and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She pleaded not guilty.
The Mayor’s House
In January 2016, then-City Administrator Mike Alaniz contacted Fito Salinas and Mary Salinas with a proposal.
“As you recall the City of La Joya took the opportunity to purchase the adjacent property to your home for the expansion of our existing cemetery, due to lack of space. Since then, we are again faced with the same dilemma of limited property for the city cemetery,” Alaniz wrote to Fito Salinas and Mary Salinas on Jan. 6, 2016, according to a copy of the email released under the Public Information Act. “We are graciously asking if you both would consider selling your property to add cemetery space. Due to state laws, the City cannot purchase cemetery property if the land is not adjacent to the existing cemetery.”
They agreed to sell.
The Hidalgo County Appraisal District valued the property at $69,476. The City Council agreed to pay $235,000 — more than triple the appraised value.
Prosecutors brought the facts before a grand jury, which indicted Fito Salinas. Mary Salinas wasn’t charged with any crime.
Zayas, the attorney who represents Fito Salinas, asked for more details about the alleged scheme during a hearing last week.
As he prepared for trial, Zayas said he became aware of questions about the need to acquire the property, the price and the title.
“They’re saying that it was sold for too much, but they don’t have an expert that said what would have been the proper sale price,” Zayas said. “I mean, I don’t know if a sale price can be part of a fraudulent scheme.”
U.S. District Judge Randy Crane said the scheme, as he understood it, involved the “artificially high price.”
“Quintessential ‘swampland in Florida,’” Crane said. “This is worthless land that was sold for a lot of money is the scheme, the alleged scheme.”
DiPiazza, the federal prosecutor, said the government had witnesses and appraisals that would prove the allegation.
The Arcoiris Daycare Project
In May 2015, a local couple requested a loan from the La Joya EDC.
The couple, Miguel and Silvia Ochoa, wanted to open a business called Arcoiris Daycare LLC. With help from a consultant named Joseph Campos, they put together a proposal.
The La Joya EDC loaned them $217,000 in April 2016.
Campos confessed to stealing part of the money. A judge placed him on community supervision for five years and ordered him to pay $130,000 in restitution.
He was replaced by a new consultant: Frances Salinas, the mayor’s daughter.
The La Joya EDC approved a second, nearly $242,000 loan to Arcoiris Daycare LLC in August 2017. Fito Salinas signed the loan agreement.
Arcoiris Daycare, though, never opened for business.
The FBI investigation determined that Frances Salinas stole money from the Arcoiris Daycare bank account and solicited kickbacks from contractors.
Frances Salinas and Ramiro Alaniz, the general contractor on the Arcoiris Daycare project, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in June.
While she confessed to her involvement, Frances Salinas didn’t confirm or deny allegations that her father played a role in the scheme.
Fito Salinas is charged with three counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which is punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Conviction on any count may result in Fito Salinas — who will turn 83 years old in August — spending the rest of his life in prison.