Peñitas City Manager Omar Romero pleaded guilty to bribery and bankruptcy fraud charges Wednesday.
Omar X. Romero, 38, of McAllen bribed at least one member of the Agua Special Utility District board in 2018, when he sold the utility district a water tank, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr., who read the factual basis for the plea aloud Wednesday afternoon during a hearing at the federal courthouse. Romero also fraudulently took $50,000 from Hidalgo County EMS in 2020, when the cash-strapped company was in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings.
Wearing a black suit and a blue surgical mask, Romero pleaded guilty to bankruptcy fraud and violating the federal Travel Act by using a phone during the bribery scheme.
Romero and his attorney, Thomas J. McHugh of San Antonio, couldn’t be reached for comment after the hearing Wednesday afternoon.
The case against Romero is part of a wide-ranging federal investigation that targeted public corruption in western Hidalgo County.
When the investigation started remains unclear.
FBI agents served the La Joya Independent School District, the Mission Consolidated Independent School District, the Agua Special Utility District, the city of Peñitas and the city of Sullivan City with grand jury subpoenas in May and June.
The subpoenas requested information on mayors, judges, school board trustees, city managers and other public officials.
Romero negotiated a plea agreement, waived indictment and pleaded guilty to a type of charging document called a “criminal information,” which is frequently used when a person is cooperating with prosecutors.
“That tells me that they’ve worked out something,” said attorney Rick Salinas of Mission. “That the accused has agreed to be honest and truthful.”
During federal investigations, people who plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors may receive shorter prison sentences — or avoid prison altogether.
“And in a situation like this, where there are so many moving parts and so many players, it would be stupid not to come forward,” Salinas said. “If you’re going to wait for the tide to get bigger, you’re going to get swept away.”
Romero sold two used water tanks to Agua SUD through ST Infrastructure Group, a construction company he owned.
ST Infrastructure Group sold Agua SUD the first water tank in September 2017, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act. Agua SUD paid $245,000.
In January 2018, when ST Infrastructure Group sold Agua SUD the second water tank, Romero bribed at least one member of the utility board.
Lopez, the federal prosecutor, said Romero paid $6,000 to “Board Member A” and $42,500 to “Individual A.”
Romero believed that part of the $42,500 he paid to “Individual A” would be provided to other members of the utility board.
Lopez didn’t identify “Board Member A” or “Individual A” by name.
ST Infrastructure Group wanted $265,000 for the second water tank, according to emails released under the Public Information Act, but Agua SUD General Manager Jose E. “Eddie” Saenz offered just $165,000.
They settled on $212,500.
Agua SUD, however, ended up paying about $245,000, according to a check register Agua SUD released under the Public Information Act.
Lopez said Agua SUD didn’t actually need the used water tanks ST Infrastructure Group provided. The company also charged Agua SUD for storage, even though ST Infrastructure Group hadn’t actually taken possession of the tank.
Romero pleaded guilty to violating the federal Travel Act by using a phone to further the bribery scheme.
Hidalgo County EMS
Romero moonlighted as a consultant for Hidalgo County EMS, a privately owned ambulance company.
In 2019, when Hidalgo County EMS filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Romero offered to help.
His company, Government Asset Services, became the chief restructuring officer.
During the bankruptcy, however, Romero took $50,000 from the struggling company.
Romero took the money without permission from the bankruptcy court, which resulted in the bankruptcy fraud charge.
Hidalgo County EMS CEO Kenneth B. Ponce also pleaded guilty to a federal bankruptcy fraud charge. The criminal information against Ponce described Romero as “Co-Conspirator B.”
“During the course of the bankruptcy proceeding, Co-conspirator B obtained at least $50,000 from the bankruptcy estate that was not authorized as his compensation,” according to the criminal information. “PONCE accepted an interest payment from Co-Conspirator B on the funds taken from the Hidalgo County EMS bankruptcy estate. The sum taken by co-conspirator B and/or interest payment received or to be received by PONCE were not reported to creditors or the bankruptcy court as payments to an insider as required by the bankruptcy code nor were they otherwise disclosed to the bankruptcy court or creditors of Hidalgo County EMS during the bankruptcy proceeding.”
After he pleaded guilty on Wednesday afternoon, Romero appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Juan F. Alanis for a detention hearing.
Alanis set bond at $50,000 with no cash deposit or surety required.
Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 20, 2022. Romero faces a maximum of five years in federal prison.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to recommend that Romero serve his sentences concurrently.