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Attorney: former Peñitas city manager found himself in situations where ‘the lines may become blurred’

Before he pleaded guilty to bribery and bankruptcy fraud charges, former Peñitas City Manager Omar Romero sent a cryptic message to members of the Texas City Management Association.

Romero, who had just become the president of the South Texas region, said he needed to resign.

Peñitas City Manager Omar Romero. (Photo courtesy of the city of Peñitas.)

“I know in the coming days and weeks that there will be many stories circulating,” Romero wrote. “The decision I have been faced with is to fight a huge foe and risk losing everything or take a loss and be able to spend time focusing on my family.”

In the email, which Romero wrote at 11:14 a.m. on Nov. 9, he referenced “pending legal issues not related to my position at the city.”

What he meant became clear on Nov. 10, when Romero appeared before U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa.

Romero confessed to participating in a bribery scheme that involved the Agua Special Utility District and taking $50,000 from Hidalgo County EMS, a bankrupt ambulance company.

The charges involved Romero’s businesses, not the city of Peñitas, said attorney Thomas J. McHugh of San Antonio, who represents Romero.

“He blames no one but himself,” McHugh said. “But it’s not a bright line. It’s not like fentanyl or something.”

McHugh described Romero as a “good and decent man” who found himself in situations where “the lines may become blurred.”

The bribery scheme took place in 2018, when Romero’s construction company, ST Infrastructure Group, sold Agua SUD a water tank.

Romero paid $6,000 to “Board Member A,” according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr., who read the factual basis for the plea during the hearing. Romero also paid $42,500 to “Individual A,” which he believed would buy votes from other board members.

Lopez didn’t identify “Board Member A” or “Individual A” by name.

Romero also confessed to taking $50,000 from Hidalgo County EMS, a privately owned ambulance company.

In 2019, when Hidalgo County EMS filed for bankruptcy, Romero’s consulting firm, Government Asset Services, became the chief restructuring officer. He worked closely with Hidalgo County EMS CEO Kenneth B. Ponce.

Romero took $50,000 from Hidalgo County EMS in 2020 without permission from the bankruptcy court. After he received the money, Romero made an interest payment to Ponce.

In March 2021, when Ponce pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bankruptcy fraud, the criminal information against him referred to Romero as “Co-Conspirator B.”

Neither the bribery nor the bankruptcy fraud scheme involved the city of Peñitas.

Romero, though, became the second city administrator to be charged with a federal crime during the past six months.

A grand jury indicted Peñitas Chief of Staff Andres “Andy” Morales on four gun charges in June. He pleaded not guilty.

Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez declined to comment on the charges against Romero and Morales, which aren’t related to their positions with Peñitas.

Former Mayor Marcos Ochoa, however, said the decision to keep two people under federal indictment on the city payroll deeply concerned him.

“This is an embarrassment to the founding fathers of Peñitas,” Ochoa said, referring to the original City Council, prominent members of the community and Norberto “Beto” Salinas, who supported the push to incorporate Peñitas.

After he pleaded guilty, the City Council replaced Romero with Humberto “Beto” Garza, who retired from the Hidalgo County Planning Department in January.

While the facts presented by the government during the plea hearing are correct, McHugh said the public may think differently about the charges with more context.

For example, McHugh said he disagreed with the description of the $6,000 payment to “Board Member A” as a bribe.

“It’s a campaign contribution,” McHugh said. “And it’s after the fact, not before the fact.”

The circumstances of the payment remain unclear. No member of the board actually disclosed a $6,000 donation from Romero, according to campaign finance reports filed with Agua SUD.

McHugh said Romero probably made the donation through a third party.

“And why it was done in the way it was done, that plays out at sentencing,” McHugh said. “Without blame, but to provide an honest context for what happened.”

McHugh said he would describe the payment as a gratuity, not a bribe.

Romero also paid $42,500 to “Individual A.” Romero apparently believed the money would buy additional votes for the water tank deal.

“I know who that is,” McHugh said. “I am not free or at liberty to share that information.”

McHugh said he couldn’t provide details about the bankruptcy fraud charge either.

“There is a tremendous backstory to that,” McHugh said.

When he pleaded guilty, the format of the hearing didn’t allow Romero to provide context or explain what happened.

“And so when it came down to the ‘Yes’ or the ‘No,’ he knew the response,” McHugh said. “But there’s a backstory here. There’s a backstory. And he’s going to tell that.”

Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 20. Romero faces a maximum of five years in federal prison.

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