A new city council majority in Edinburg has begun a wholesale house-cleaning that centers on a still-sitting mayor who faces charges of rigging his own election in 2017.
The council last week fired City Secretary Ludivina Leal and municipal judges Armando Guerra and Agustin “Gus” Hernandez and replaced four of the five members of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation.
All those removed from office are political allies or appointees of Mayor Richard Molina who, along with his wife, Dalia, were charged in April with masterminding a voter fraud scheme that has swept up at least two dozen people charged with either soliciting illegal voting or voting illegally. Leal is one of those charged.
The council also voted to replace City Manager Juan Guerra and offered him a $250,000 severance package, less than five months after Molina called a special meeting and in five minutes with no discussion gave Guerra a $25,000 raise, according to the Monitor, a McAllen newspaper not connected to The Texas Monitor.
Guerra and Ruben Ramirez, executive director of the Economic Development Corporation, who has also been replaced, are being sued by council member Gilbert Enriquez for withholding budget and project information from the council.
Enriquez once served as president of the corporation board but was demoted and later dismissed after breaking with Molina who, until the recent shakeup, also was a powerful member of the board.
“They removed me because they didn’t want me to have any knowledge of any of the transactions that they were doing and that they were approving,” Enriquez told the McAllen paper.
The Texas Monitor contacted Enriquez for comment but did not get a reply before this story posted.
Edinburg, a growing city of 100,000 just north of McAllen, has been in political turmoil since a month after Molina’s election. Having heard talk around town, then-Edinburg Justice of the Peace Mary Alice Palacios did a canvass of ballots and filed a voter fraud complaint with the Texas secretary of state.
Investigators for the state attorney general’s Election Fraud Unit said that more than a month before the November 2017 election, Molina, his wife and at least three other individuals began soliciting people who lived outside of Edinburg to vote using city addresses, one of them an apartment complex Molina owned.
The AG’s office investigators and members of the Texas Rangers began arresting and charging voters with felonies for falsifying their addresses on their ballots. In all, 16 people were charged before the Molinas were charged with felony organized election fraud.
The prosecution is the first of its kind under a bill passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017 to allow law enforcement agencies to more aggressively investigate voter fraud.
Molina has insisted the original complaint and the investigation that followed are part of a local political vendetta on behalf of Richard Garcia, the popular longtime mayor whom Molina defeated.
The arrests continue, the most recent last month. No trial date has been set for the Molinas.
Running parallel to the voter fraud investigation was an unrelated FBI investigation that in February 2018 led to felony bribery charges against State District Judge Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado of Edinburg.
A Houston grand jury indicted him the following month on the same three bribery counts plus three counts of violating the federal Travel Act, which makes it illegal to use the telephone to commit a crime. In those counts he was accused of taking money from a local attorney in exchange for favorable outcomes for the lawyer’s clients in court.
Although he resigned as district judge in May 2018, Delgado subsequently ran for and was elected to a seat on Texas’s 13th Court of Appeals while free on a $100,000 bail.
In July, a jury found Delgado guilty on all of the felony counts and on Sept. 25 U.S. District Judge Alfred Bennett sentenced him to five years in prison.
Earlier this month, voters sent a message that the changes in Edinburg government aren’t over. On Nov. 5 voters handed walking papers to council member David Torres, part of Molina’s ruling majority, and voted in David White, the city’s former police chief, to replace him.
Another fight between Molina’s allies and the council’s reform majority should be decided next month. A council vacancy created by the resignation of another Molina ally on the council led to a special election. Deanna Dominguez, who has Molina’s endorsement, was the leading vote-getter of the four vying for the seat, followed closely by Johnny Garcia, who has the support of the council’s reform majority. The runoff between the two is set for Dec. 10.
Efforts to reach Garcia before this story posted were not successful. He told a local television station on election night he liked his prospects in the runoff.
“It’s not about a particular family or a particular faction,” he said, “but it’s more about unifying the city and becoming one.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].