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Peñitas mayor pleads guilty in public corruption case

Peñitas Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez pleaded guilty to a federal theft charge on Thursday.

During a hearing on Thursday afternoon, Lopez “admitted that in 2018 he aided and abetted the La Joya Independent School District (LJISD) athletic director in committing fraud against the district,” according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas.

“As a vendor, Lopez sold approximately 156 baseball gloves, 15,400 square feet of turf and three pitching machines to LJISD between March and August 2018 for a total of approximately $70,010,” according to the news release. “In efforts to approve the inflated costs associated with those purchases, Lopez fraudulently submitted over 20 separate invoices to the La Joya athletic director in efforts to aid and abet circumventing of competitive procurement procedures and subsequent approval of the invoices.”

Attorney Tony Torres of Edinburg, who represents Lopez, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday  afternoon.

Peñitas Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez. (Photo courtesy of the city of Peñitas.)

Voters elected Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez, 38, of Peñitas in 2015.

Lopez campaigned with Armin Garza, Jose Roel “J.R.” Flores and Ramiro Loya. After taking control of the City Council, they made big changes at City Hall.

The City Council hired Omar Romero, who had managed a Harley-Davidson dealership in McAllen, as city manager. Peñitas also created a chief of staff position for Andres “Andy” Morales, who managed Lopez’s political campaign.

During the next few years, they became a major force in western Hidalgo County politics.

Garza resigned from the City Council to join the La Joya school board. Lopez landed a high-paying administrative position at La Joya ISD. And the newly minted city administrators, Romero and Morales, became consultants.

Garza, Lopez, Romero and Morales also hunted together. Photos published by the Santa Cruz Ranch in Starr County show them posing with exotic animals.

Lopez won a second term in May 2019. He received 68% of nearly 1,500 ballots cast in the mayoral race and crushed his opponent, former Mayor Marcos Ochoa, in every precinct.

Questions about Lopez surfaced in 2021, when the FBI served the city of Peñitas and La Joya ISD with grand jury subpoenas.

The subpoenas requested documents on Lopez and Xizaka LLC, a company Lopez created.

A federal grand jury indicted Lopez in June 2022.

“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.

While the indictment didn’t identify the employee, the “Ship to Information” on documents released by La Joya ISD lists Alex Guajardo as the contact person.

At the time, Guajardo was the athletic director for La Joya ISD, according to salary data released by the school district.

Guajardo also served with Lopez on the City Council. He resigned in February after pleading guilty to a public corruption charge.

As part of his plea, Guajardo confessed to bypassing “traditional competitive bidding procedures” to approve purchases from a company owned by another public official.

The cases against Lopez and Guajardo are part of a federal investigation that revealed widespread corruption in western Hidalgo County.

Garza, Romero and Morales struck deals with the government and pleaded guilty to public corruption charges. The FBI arrested Lopez in June, when he returned from a vacation in Mexico.

Lopez initially pleaded not guilty. In a motion filed last month, however, his attorney said he needed additional time to “pursue a negotiated resolution.”

Correction

This story incorrectly stated when Peñitas Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez pleaded guilty. Lopez pleaded guilty on Thursday.

1 Comment

  1. Luis on August 12, 2022 at 8:40 am

    How long before he has to resign from being mayor of Penitas? He should automatically be disqualified from his position to not influence any further decisions the city needs to make. It is still a shame that the city employs two convicted felons.

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