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President of solar power company pleads guilty in western Hidalgo County corruption case

The president of a solar power company pleaded guilty Monday in the western Hidalgo County corruption case.

Chirag Patel, 46, of Austin — the president of Ecolectrics, which provided the Agua Special Utility District and the La Joya Independent School District with solar panels — pleaded guilty to a federal money laundering charge on Monday afternoon.

Patel paid nearly $144,000 to Andres “Andy” Morales, a major player in western Hidalgo County politics, for a contract with Agua SUD. Morales passed the money along to local politicians.

“During interviews, Morales admitted that said proceeds were utilized to pay bribes to said elected officials,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr., who summarized the scheme during a hearing on Monday. “And financial records also support the bribe payments made by Morales to such officials after receiving the payments from the defendant.”

Chirag Suryakant Patel was born in India and moved to the United States in the 1990s.

Patel graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a doctoral degree in electrical engineering and worked for IBM in New York.

“He has devoted, basically, his life to humanitarian causes. He basically donates 90 to 95% of all income to charity,” said attorney Jose Contreras of San Antonio, who represents Patel. “He lives an ascetic life with his parents in a small apartment, even though his income, if he chose to, would allow him to live a much better lifestyle.”

Patel sends the money to India, where it supports a wide array of humanitarian projects, Contreras said. Patel also travels to India himself to assist with the work.

“People who have never had sanitation or toilets before. They will build it for them. People who have never had clean water before. They will do that for them,” Contreras said. “Kids who have never had three meals before. They will arrange for them to have food.”

Patel started a business, Ecolectrics, in 2008.

The company became a “full-scale distributor of selected brands of solar panels, inverters and mounting systems,” according to the Ecolectrics website, and completed projects for customers throughout the United States.

In 2019, someone approached Patel with a proposal.

The person, who Lopez identified as “Person A,” worked for Performance Services Inc., an Indiana-based company that specialized in energy savings projects.

Person A told Patel that Agua SUD planned to contract with Performance Services Inc. for a solar project.

Performance Services Inc. would subcontract the solar project to Patel — if Patel hired Morales. Patel agreed.

“Defendant informed Person A that any payments to Morales would increase and inflate the costs associated with the subcontracts with Performance Services to accommodate Morales’ payments,” Lopez said.

Less than two weeks later, Agua SUD approved a $4.1 million project that included the installation of solar panels. Performance Services Inc. subcontracted the work to Patel, who put Morales on the payroll.

Patel paid nearly $144,000 to Morales from Nov. 14, 2019, to Oct. 28, 2020. When he made the payments, Patel said he knew a “high probability” existed that Morales would use the money to bribe public officials.

“We essentially have willful blindness, your honor,” Lopez said.

Patel also communicated with “Person B,” another Performance Services Inc. employee. Person B asked Patel to pay a public official who had assisted Performance Services Inc.

“Person B requested defendant’s assistance because Person B stated that it would not look good if Performance Services paid the payments directly, according to the defendant,” Lopez said.

Jim Adams, the general manager for Performance Services Inc. in Texas, said the company didn’t know about the bribery scheme.

“We would never authorize or condone this,” Adams said.

The case against Patel is part of a federal investigation that uncovered widespread corruption in western Hidalgo County.

Ten people, including two members of the La Joya school board, a La Joya school district administrator, two city of Peñitas administrators and a member of the Peñitas City Council, pleaded guilty during the past six months.

According to information released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, they accepted more than $1 million in bribes and kickbacks.

When he appeared in court on Monday afternoon, Patel pleaded guilty to a federal money laundering charge. He faces a maximum of five years in prison.

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