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Agua SUD may seek restitution from former Peñitas city manager

The Agua Special Utility District may request that former Peñitas City Manager Omar Romero, who bribed a member of the utility board, pay at least $30,000 in restitution.

During a meeting last week, the utility board authorized General Manager Roberto J. Salinas to submit a formal request for restitution. First, though, the utility district must review payments to Romero, who sold water tanks to Agua SUD.

“Obviously there weren’t invoices for bribes and kickbacks,” said attorney Javier Peña of Edinburg, who represents Agua SUD.

Romero owned ST Infrastructure Group, which sold a 201,500-gallon water tank to Agua SUD in September 2017, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act. The utility district paid $245,000.

Agua SUD purchased another water tank from ST Infrastructure Group in January 2018. The utility district agreed to pay $212,500 for the second tank.

In November 2021, when he pleaded guilty, Romero admitted that he fraudulently charged Agua SUD nearly $32,000 in storage fees.

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

Romero also confessed that he bribed a member of the utility board.

“The defendant communicated with Agua SUD Board Member A, who solicited the defendant for a benefit as consideration for Agua SUD Board Member A’s votes in connection with the Agua SUD purchase of the water tank and Agua SUD Board Member A’s exercise of discretion as an Agua SUD board member,” according to the factual basis for the plea. “Based on the solicitation and the board member’s prior vote for the water tank sale, the defendant agreed to confer and did provide the board member with approximately $6,000.”

Romero also provided at least $42,500 to an intermediary, which he believed “would be partially used to deliver compensation or influence to Agua SUD board members for their respective votes,” according to the factual basis for the plea.

Documents filed in the case against Romero don’t identify the board member or the intermediary by name.

Whether or not Agua SUD actually needed the second water tank also may become a point of contention.

During the plea hearing, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. about the purpose of the bribery scheme.

“I don’t necessarily believe that Agua SUD actually needed the water tank,” Lopez said.

The U.S. Probation Office sent Agua SUD a letter dated Dec. 30, which provided the utility district with information about the restitution process.

Agua SUD apparently left the letter in a pile of mail. Employees opened the letter in March.

“It was sitting in an envelope,” said attorney Matthew R. Beatty of Austin, who represents Agua SUD.

How much Agua SUD requests in restitution will depend on the results of an internal review. The restitution amount must be supported by documentation and will be subject to court scrutiny.

Agua SUD could request nearly $32,000 for the storage fees or make an argument that Romero should pay restitution based on the storage fees, bribes and cost of the second water tank — if the utility district never actually needed it.

Attorney Thomas J. McHugh of San Antonio, who represents Romero, said the storage fees aren’t in dispute.

“The storage fees are the sine qua non of his plea,” McHugh said.

The factual basis for the plea, however, isn’t the full story, McHugh said. Romero plans to provide the court with more information at sentencing.

“He is looking forward to his next day in court,” McHugh said. “And putting in context his plea of guilty.”

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