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Lawsuit claims Peñitas city administrators rigged auto auctions

Former Fire Chief Leroy Salinas filed a lawsuit against Peñitas last week, claiming the city rigged auto auctions — and fired him after he attempted to raise the alarm.

Salinas sued Peñitas on April 13 for wrongful termination and political retaliation.

“The political majority in Peñitas, who have famously called their own city ‘Cartel City’ in group chats, have become embroiled in multiple criminal investigations,” according to the lawsuit. “Despite convictions and guilty pleas many of the criminal leaders are still on the city’s taxpayer’s payroll. In Peñitas, crime pays, and honesty gets you fired.”

Salinas accepted a job with the Peñitas Fire Department in 2018, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act.

By 2020, he’d become the fire chief. The job paid about $36,000 a year.

Salinas supervised the small department, which responded to everything from car crashes on U.S. 83 to brush fires in rural parts of Hidalgo County. The firefighters worked closely with the Peñitas Police Department, which frequently took possession of abandoned cars.

Leroy Salinas. (Photo by Dave Hendricks / The Progress Times.)

Peñitas sold the abandoned cars during public auctions.

Attorney Javier Peña of Edinburg, who represents Salinas, said city administrators rigged the auctions for their friends. According to Peña, people with connections at City Hall would bid whatever amount necessary to win the auctions.

“Then, when it’s time to pay, they would instruct the city employees to reduce the amount that had to be paid,” Peña said. “So if it’s $10,000, it doesn’t matter, just pay $300.”

The lawsuit doesn’t identify the city administrators who allegedly rigged the auctions or the people who paid reduced prices. Peña said the administrators who participated in the scheme were then-City Manager Omar Romero and Public Works Director Andres “Andy” Morales.

Romero resigned in 2021, when he pleaded guilty to federal bribery and bankruptcy fraud charges.

Morales pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2022, when he confessed to accepting more than $1.1 million in bribes and kickbacks during a conspiracy that involved more than a dozen politicians in western Hidalgo County. He remains employed by Peñitas.

The city of Peñitas didn’t respond to a request for comment.

When he found out about the scheme, Salinas contacted the police department and the FBI, Peña said.

Peñitas police Chief Roel Bermea, however, said the department had no record of Salinas filing a complaint about the auto auctions being rigged.

The city fired Salinas in June 2022.

“The City of Peñitas would like to thank you for your service to our community,” City Manager Humberto “Beto” Garza III wrote to Salinas on June 22, 2022. “However, due to unreconcilable differences I have no other option but to terminate you from your position with the City of Penitas.”

The letter, which Peñitas released under the Texas Public Information Act, instructed Salinas to direct any questions about his termination to the city attorney.

“I regret that it has come to this,” Garza wrote, “but unfortunately I do not believe that you can continue to lead your department in the direction that the city wishes to go.”

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