State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa wrote a strongly worded letter to Peñitas Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez last week, admonishing the city for keeping people on the payroll after they pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
The decision to keep Public Works Director Andres “Andy” Morales and former City Manager Omar Romero on the payroll after they pleaded guilty suggests the City Council actually condoned what they did, Hinojosa wrote in the two-page letter, which he copied to Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott.
“Given the situation with the corruption and bribery schemes that have taken place, it is time to open the curtains and pull back the sheets and let the sunshine in so that the taxpayers can see what you as public officials are doing with their tax dollars,” Hinojosa wrote on March 4. “Enough damage has already been done to the community and the trust has been eroded. It is time to right these wrongs and work towards earning back their trust. We as public officials are held to higher standards of moral and ethical behavior, especially when making decisions involving taxpayer money.”
Lopez didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The charges against Morales and Romero are part of a federal investigation that uncovered widespread corruption in western Hidalgo County.
Five people who pleaded guilty in the case had a Peñitas connection:
> Former City Manager Omar Romero pleaded guilty to bribery and bankruptcy fraud charges on Nov. 10.
After he pleaded guilty, the City Council replaced Romero with Humberto “Beto” Garza III.
“And Mr. Romero will be reassigned as a supportive staff to help in transitioning the city on these future projects that we have,” Lopez said during a City Council meeting on Nov. 11.
Minutes after the meeting adjourned, Peñitas released a statement.
“In an effort to keep Peñitas operating effectively and continuing to grow and develop, Mr. Omar Romero has been demoted and will continue in a supportive role to ensure continuity of services on projects with which he was involved,” according to the statement.
He became a consultant — and Peñitas started paying Romero about $5,400 per month for “administrative and support services.”
“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,” attorney Thomas J. McHugh of San Antonio, who represents Romero, said in a statement released last month.
> La Joya school board Trustee Armin Garza pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States on Jan. 6.
Garza also worked for Peñitas, where he was the deputy emergency management coordinator. Garza resigned after he pleaded guilty.
> Public Works Director Andres “Andy” Morales pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and making a false statement during the purchase of a firearm on Jan. 21.
Morales remained employed after he pleaded guilty.
> Peñitas City Councilman Alex Guajardo pleaded guilty to a federal bribery and bankruptcy fraud charge on Jan. 21.
Guajardo resigned after he pleaded guilty.
> La Joya school board Trustee Oscar “Coach” Salinas pleaded guilty to a federal extortion charge on March 3.
Salinas resigned from his positions as public information officer and associate municipal judge for Peñitas a week before he pleaded guilty.
The situation at City Hall concerned Hinojosa, who is from Peñitas.
“These folks do not represent the values of the people in La Joya, Peñitas and Palmview,” Hinojosa said.
When he learned that Morales and Romero remained on the payroll, Hinojosa wrote a letter to Lopez. He copied the City Council, the city manager, the city secretary and the city attorney.
“The City should terminate any direct or indirect contractual obligations with these individuals,” Hinojosa wrote to Lopez on Feb. 11. “Not one dime from the City’s taxpayers should fund corrupt elected officials or city officers.”
Lopez responded on Feb. 28, when he informed Hinojosa that Guajardo had resigned from the City Council.
Hinojosa wrote back on March 4.
Guajardo made the right decision, Hinojosa wrote, but he questioned why Peñitas apparently hadn’t addressed the situation with Morales and Romero.
“However, I am disappointed that the City has kept Mr. Morales and Mr. Romero on the City’s payroll,” Hinojosa wrote. “The crimes these individuals pled guilty to involve moral turpitude. The Council’s decision to keep these administrators on the payroll, at taxpayers expense, signifies that you all condone the actions and decisions made by these individuals resulting in further deterioration of the public’s trust.”