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In January, when La Joya school board Trustee Armin Garza pleaded guilty in a major corruption case, prosecutors faced an unusual problem.
People charged with federal crimes are prohibited from communicating with co-conspirators and witnesses. Garza, however, couldn’t avoid them.
“He is currently employed at an entity with two other individuals that are also under federal indictment, your honor,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. told U.S. Magistrate Judge Nadia S. Medrano during a hearing on Jan. 6. “I understand that he may need to talk to them about work.”
Garza worked at Peñitas City Hall, which kept two administrators on the payroll after they pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges:
> City Manager Omar Romero pleaded guilty to bribery and bankruptcy fraud charges in November 2021.
The City Council replaced Romero the day after he pleaded guilty.
Less than a week later, the city approved a month-to-month contract with Romero for “administrative and support services.” Under the arrangement, Peñitas agreed to pay him about $5,400 per month.
Romero remains under contract with Peñitas.
> The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested Peñitas Chief of Staff Andres “Andy” Morales in May 2021.
After his arrest, Peñitas made him the public works director and compensated Morales with a new stipend of $600 per paycheck.
Morales struck a deal with prosecutors in January 2022, when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and making a false statement during the purchase of a firearm.
He remains employed by Peñitas.
Lopez said the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, which is prosecuting the case, had no problem with them talking about work.
Romero and Morales, meanwhile, remained at City Hall.
“I don’t think it’s right,” said Mario Chapa, who represented Peñitas on the Agua Special Utility District board. “They have violated public trust, financial trust.”
Peñitas needs honest leaders, Chapa said, and people convicted of crimes should be removed from office.
The corruption scandal hit Peñitas again on Jan. 21, when City Councilman Alex Guajardo pleaded guilty to a federal bribery and money laundering charge.
“It is in the best interest of the City of Peñitas and its residents that Mr. Guajardo no longer continues to hold any city office or position,” state Sen. Juan. “Chuy” Hinojosa wrote to Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez on Feb. 11. “State law requires state legislators and state officers convicted of a felony to vacate their office automatically on the date the conviction becomes final. The same standard should apply locally.”
Hinojosa also requested information about Romero and Morales.
“The City should terminate any direct or indirect contractual obligations with these individuals,” Hinojosa wrote. “Not one dime from the City’s taxpayers should fund corrupt elected officials or city officers.”
Rigo Lopez didn’t respond to requests for comment.
One possible reason for keeping Romero and Morales on the payroll may be the argument that the crimes they committed didn’t involve Peñitas.
Romero bribed a member of the Agua Special Utility District board and committed fraud during the Hidalgo County EMS bankruptcy. Guajardo and Morales confessed to participating in a bribery and kickback scheme that involved “energy savings” projects at the La Joya Independent School District.
Chapa said where they paid bribes or committed fraud didn’t matter.
“If the same opportunity offers itself to this person in our city, why wouldn’t this person do it here?” Chapa said. “A one dollar bill looks and spends the same regardless of what city, state or whom it comes from.”
Another possible reason may be “Project Moon,” a major economic development project underway in Peñitas.
“Following his November 10, 2021, plea of guilty and acceptance of responsibility, Omar Romero tendered his resignation as City Manager to the City of Penitas — and related Boards,” attorney Thomas J. McHugh of San Antonio, who represents Romero, said in a statement. “He did this on his own volition, without anyone’s urging, and because he believed it was the right thing to do.”
Peñitas asked Romero to stick around, McHugh said, to assist with the transition.
“He is currently serving in a non-management capacity in order to assist the current City management and to provide and ensure for a smooth and uninterrupted transition,” McHugh said in the statement. “Certainly, the charges do not relate to his job performance. He was — and remains, a valuable component to the continued smooth and lawful operations of the City.”
How the City Council will handle the situation with Guajardo remains unclear.
Members of the City Council may be removed if they are “convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude,” according to the city charter. Bribery is clearly a crime of moral turpitude, a term that encompasses immoral and unethical behavior.
What the charter means by “convicted” may become a point of contention.
After he pleaded guilty, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that Guajardo had been convicted. The conviction, though, will not be final until Guajardo is sentenced and exhausts his right to appeal.
“He hasn’t been convicted of anything,” said attorney Carlos A. Garcia of Mission, who represents Guajardo. “And so I think that’s an important detail that’s left out of the senator’s letter.”
It’s common for people who plead guilty in complex, multi-defendant cases to spend years waiting for sentencing.
Former La Joya City Administrator Mike Alaniz pleaded guilty to theft in October 2019. He cooperated with prosecutors and provided them with information about wrongdoing by former La Joya Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas.
Delays in the case against Salinas left Alaniz in limbo. More than two years after he pleaded guilty, Alaniz is still awaiting sentencing.
Rather than risk a fight over the meaning of “conviction,” Peñitas may ask Guajardo to resign.
It appears Guajardo may be open to that possibility.
“First of all, Mr. Guajardo’s intention is to eventually resign his position. It’s just the timing of the resignation is not right,” Garcia said. “And so, at the appropriate time, he’ll take the steps necessary to move forward, and to allow the city to move forward.”