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La Joya school board Trustee Oscar “Coach” Salinas pleaded guilty to a federal extortion charge Thursday, when he confessed to shaking down an engineering firm and threatening to cancel an insurance contract for political reasons.
Oscar “Coach” Salinas, 52, of Sullivan City — an influential player in western Hidalgo County politics — pleaded guilty Thursday morning during a hearing before U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez at the federal courthouse in McAllen.
“He’s been a public servant for a long time. He’s a respected member of the community,” said attorney Christopher Sully of McAllen, who represents Salinas. “But like everybody, we all make mistakes. Unfortunately, he made one. And he made the decision to come to court and take responsibility for it, and do what needed to be done.”
Salinas, who joined the La Joya Independent School District board in 2012, wasn’t just a trustee.
Peñitas and Palmview paid Salinas to handle public relations. He became ubiquitous on Facebook and emceed countless events. And his wife, Alma, is the mayor of Sullivan City.
Salinas resigned from the school board Thursday morning.
“Mr. Oscar ‘Coach’ Salinas submitted a letter of resignation on March 3, 2022 from the La Joya ISD School Board,” according to a statement released by the district. “At this time the District has no other information.”
The case against Salinas is part of an FBI investigation that uncovered widespread corruption in western Hidalgo County.
Salinas is the seventh person to plead guilty:
> Former Peñitas City Manager Omar Romero pleaded guilty to bribery and bankruptcy fraud charges on Nov. 10.
> Former La Joya school board Trustee Armin Garza pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States on Jan. 6.
> Edinburg businessman Jaime A. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to a bribery and money laundering charge on Jan. 12.
> Former Peñitas City Councilman Alex Guajardo pleaded guilty to a bribery and money laundering charge on Jan. 21.
> Peñitas Public Works Director Andres “Andy” Morales pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States on Jan. 21.
> Former La Joya ISD administrator Jose Luis Morin pleaded guilty to a bribery charge on Feb. 7.
All seven pleaded guilty to a type of charging document called a criminal information, which is typically used when a defendant is cooperating with prosecutors.
Salinas admitted that he attempted to extort Jacinto Garza, the CEO of Mercedes-based L&G Engineering, in October 2020.
L&G Engineering hired Salinas to “engage in Professional Services associated with sales” in February 2019, according to documents filed in a civil lawsuit. L&G paid him $8,000 per month, even though Salinas had no experience with engineering.
Salinas supported incumbent Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Flores during the March 2020 Democratic Party primary. Flores, though, lost to Everardo “Ever” Villarreal.
Ever Villarreal is married to Ruth Villarreal, the owner of Ruth Villarreal Insurance, which had a contract with La Joya ISD.
On Oct. 25, 2020, Salinas sent a series of messages to Garza on Signal, an encrypted messaging app. Salinas was upset that Garza had thrown his support behind Ever Villarreal.
“We WILL BE FIRE HIS WIFE ON SWEARING IN DAY! GUARANTEED!” Salinas wrote to Garza, according to screenshots of the text messages filed in the civil lawsuit. “So fire me also.”
Salinas claimed many other politicians were aligned with him.
“We need to renegotiate MY CONTRACT!” Salinas wrote. “Si No? Ni Pedo!”
Garza responded on Oct. 30.
“Based on this txt you sent me, I don’t need to renegotiate any contract with you and also we at L&G do not condone this type of politics,” Garza wrote. “Your employment was based on helping out the current commissioner but I believe this is no longer the case. I will send you your last chk on Monday.”
After sending the text messages, Salinas supported the decision to cancel the contract with Ruth Villarreal.
The text messages surfaced last year in a civil lawsuit between La Joya ISD and Ruth Villarreal Insurance.
“My firm and my client have been fighting this corruption for many years now. My client, who served the District without a single complaint, had to make a choice of letting this corruption stand in hopes of continuing her contract under the thumb of corruption or refusing to bow to the demands of corruption,” attorney Javier Peña of Edinburg, who represents Ruth Villarreal, said in a statement. “She chose to stand. It cost her the contract with La Joya ISD, but saved her character.”
Peña said Ruth Villarreal wasn’t intimidated by “corrupt bullies” and fought back. Her lawsuit remains pending.
“If we all follow Mrs. Villarreal’s example, refuse to back down, and continue to fight for what is right, never surrendering, we can one day see the end of the corruption that plagues all of us and finally get a government as it should be,” Peña said in the statement. “We must continue to fight for what is right in order to end corruption.”
At the time, Salinas attempted to explain away the text messages as part of a larger political fight.
“The circumstances surrounding the text message mentioned in the lawsuit are as follows,” Salinas said in a statement released during February 2021. “Following the victory of Ever Villarreal as County Commissioner, my employer at the time was placing pressure on me to not take any negative action against Ruth Villarreal amongst other things. I know that this pressure was coming directly from Mr. Villarreal. I know because my employer at the time told me.”
“I was promised that if I did not take any negative action against Ruth Villarreal that my employer L&G would fundraise money for my campaign, keep me employed, and even renegotiate my terms of employment to more favorable terms,” Salinas said in the statement. “After a lot of thought, I decided to do what was right and not commit to do anything that I did not believe was in the best interest of the District. Shortly after that I was fired from my job. The text mentioned in the lawsuit was in response to me being notified that I no longer worked for my former employer. I sent it in frustration and anger. After I sent it I immediately called our attorney to notify them. I know it was wrong, but I was angry and concerned about my livelihood at the time. I was being punished for doing what I thought was right.”
Sully, the attorney who represents Salinas, said La Joya ISD had already started the process of terminating Ruth Villareal’s contract and emphasized that Salinas didn’t act unilaterally.
Salinas will provide the court with more context at sentencing, Sully said, along with mitigating information.
U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Scott Hacker set bond at $30,000 with no cash deposit required.
While on bond, Salinas must either maintain or seek employment; not drink any alcohol or use illegal drugs; and participate in substance abuse counseling if directed.
The extortion charge is punishable by a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.