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Peñitas mayor pleads not guilty to federal theft charges, bond set at $50,000

Peñitas Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez pleaded not guilty to federal theft charges Tuesday.

Lopez is accused of paying a La Joya Independent School District employee to approve purchases from a company he owned.

Attorney Tony Torres of Edinburg, who represents Lopez, declined to comment.

Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez, 38, of Peñitas attended La Joya High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Texas at San Antonio. After graduation, he returned to the Rio Grande Valley and started teaching physical education classes at La Joya ISD.

Lopez became a player in western Hidalgo County politics in 2014, when he won a seat on the Agua Special Utility District board. Less than two years later, he decided to run for mayor of Peñitas.

Lopez crushed the competition, winning 58% of ballots cast in the three-way mayoral race.

Peñ1tas, the political coalition that coalesced around Lopez during the 2015 campaign, became the nucleus of a new power structure in western Hidalgo County politics. The organization’s influence extended to La Joya ISD, where he received a series of promotions after the election.

Peñitas Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez.

Within three years, Lopez went from teacher to district transportation director.

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

Ten people, including two members of the La Joya ISD school board, two city of Peñitas administrators and four businessmen, pleaded guilty during the past eight months. Prosecutors also secured an indictment against the owner of a local engineering firm, who pleaded not guilty.

Documents filed in the cases against them detail a conspiracy to steer contracts to Performance Services Inc., an Indiana-based company that specializes in energy savings projects. Public officials who supported the projects received bribes, kickbacks and government positions.

A federal grand jury indicted Lopez on June 1.

“Defendant gave cash to an LJISD employee intending to influence and reward said employee for approving LJISD purchases totaling approximately $70,010.00 from Xizaka, LLC, a business entity owned by Defendant,” according to the indictment.

The indictment doesn’t identify the La Joya ISD employee by name or provide any other details about the employee.

In January, however, Alex Guajardo — a La Joya ISD administrator who served on the Peñitas City Council with Lopez — pleaded guilty to money laundering. Guajardo confessed to bypassing competitive bidding procedures at La Joya ISD to award a contract to a company owned by another public official.

Lopez’s company, Xizaka LLC, sold athletic equipment and turf to La Joya ISD in 2018, according to invoices released under the Texas Public Information Act. The “Ship to Information” on the documents lists Guajardo as the point of contact.

La Joya ISD paid about $66,000 to Xizaka LLC from April to August 2018, according to documents released by La Joya ISD.

Attorney Carlos A. Garcia of Mission, who represents Guajardo, declined to comment.

The indictment against Lopez remained sealed until Monday, when the FBI arrested him. News about the corruption case rocketed through Peñitas.

“He should resign,” said former Mayor Marcos Ochoa, who ran against Lopez in 2019. “And, as a matter of fact, I spoke to one of the councilmen and I told him: ‘What are you all going to do? You need to step up because the people elected you to do what’s best for them.’”

While members of the City Council could ask Lopez to resign, the city charter doesn’t allow the mayor to be removed from office unless he’s convicted of “a crime involving moral turpitude.”

City Councilman Jose Roel “J.R.” Flores said he’ll leave that decision up to Lopez.

“I’d rather let him decide what’s best for his family,” Flores said.

Lopez pleaded not guilty on Tuesday morning at the federal courthouse in McAllen.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Nadia S. Medrano set bond at $50,000 with no cash deposit required. She ordered Lopez to surrender his passport, avoid contact with potential witnesses and refrain from excessive use of alcohol.

If convicted on the theft charges, Lopez faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison.

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