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Superintendent briefs La Joya school board on response to corruption scandal

This article appeared in the March 25 issue of the Progress Times.

 

Superintendent Gisela Saenz briefed the La Joya school board Wednesday on a federal investigation that revealed wrongdoing by trustees and top administrators.

During a school board meeting on Wednesday night, Saenz read a lengthy statement that summarized the scandal and described how the district responded.

The La Joya Independent School District hired an external auditor, conducted several internal investigations and provided administrators with additional training.

“These are the corrective actions taken by administration and board of trustees in response to the guilty pleas of former board members and administrators,” Saenz said.

The internal investigations started in January, when former school board Trustee Armin Garza pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States.

As part of his plea, Garza admitted that he supported promotions and stipends for La Joya ISD employees who served on the Agua Special Utility District board and the Mission City Council.

The criminal information against Garza doesn’t identify the employees or the company involved by name. Details in the document, however, make clear that “Company D” is Performance Services Inc., an Indiana-based company that specializes in “energy savings” projects.

“It was further part of the conspiracy that GARZA exerted influence over the employment of other co-conspirators, including Persons E-H, who were elected officials at other governmental entities,” according to the criminal information against Garza. “The influence was exerted to promote the awarding of contracts to Company D at said governmental entities. As part of the exercise of his influence, GARZA supported promotions or awarding of stipends to Persons E-H in exchange for their official votes or support of Company D’s energy savings projects at other governmental entities.”

Garza, meanwhile, collected $234,500 in kickbacks.

After prosecutors unsealed the criminal information, Saenz requested a review of employee stipends. Saenz also requested a review of payments made to corporations mentioned in the criminal information.

While the reviews were underway, former La Joya ISD administrator Alex Guajardo pleaded guilty to a federal bribery and money laundering charge.

Guajardo confessed that he bribed “multiple co-conspirators who were serving as La Joya ISD trustees and a co-conspirator who was also serving as an administrator at La Joya ISD.”

The federal prosecutor didn’t identify the trustees or administrator by name.

In addition to bribery, Guajardo confessed to bypassing “traditional competitive bidding procedures” to make purchases from a company owned by another public official.

The federal prosecutor didn’t provide any details about the transactions.

After information about his plea became public, Saenz requested that Chief Financial Officer Joel Treviño review all purchases Guajardo approved.

“The CFO was directed to conduct a search of all purchases made by this administrator from January 2017 to January 2022 to identify purchases that bypassed traditional competitive bidding processes,” Saenz said. “And also to conduct a search of payments made for invoices from January 2017 to January 2022 to companies named in the criminal information document.”

What, if anything, the administrators discovered remains unclear.

“It’s still in process,” Saenz said.

Other steps Saenz took included reorganizing the Student Services and Operations departments; providing administrators with additional training, which covered ethical behavior and conflicts of interest; and scheduling “governance training” for trustees.

Board President Alda T. Benavides — who served as superintendent before she joined the school board — recommended that Saenz keep a list of steps taken in response to the federal investigation.

“Because a lot of community members say that nothing’s been done. That we’re ignoring,” Benavides said. “And we’re really not ignoring. Steps have been taken.”

La Joya ISD may also provide the Texas Education Agency with a copy of the list.

“I think that, eventually, TEA will step in and do some type of investigation to verify,” Benavides said. “They won’t interfere with, of course, the FBI or anything like that. But I think that, eventually, they will step in to investigate.”

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