The bad times keep rolling in La Joya

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Frances Salinas, former interim director of the housing authority in the Rio Grande Valley town of La Joya, has been charged with brokering a city public relations contract for a former authority board member indicted in August in the same scheme.

The charges are the latest in a series of uproars that have cost the small town two public housing directors, its superintendent of schools, the top city administrator and a city contractor and now threatens to embroil its recently ousted mayor. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas has not yet named or charged the city official whom Salinas allegedly approached with the illegal offer. Last week, however,  Jose “Fito” Salinas, La Joya’s former mayor and Salinas’ father, told a reporter for the Progress Times newspaper in Mission he believed federal investigators have targeted him as that official.

The elder Salinas, who was defeated in the November election, was alleged by federal prosecutors to have signed off on an unrelated illegal land deal arranged by longtime city administrator Mike Alaniz.

Alaniz, who resigned in June, is not contesting the charges of felony embezzlement, fraud and theft, and is scheduled to appear for sentencing in federal court later this month.

The former mayor has not been charged in connection with Alaniz’s or his daughter’s cases. Salinas denied having been approached by his daughter or discussing any illegal offer, but told the Progress Times reporter, “If they’re going to blame anybody, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be me.”

The felony fraud charges against Frances Salinas are the latest in a rolling series of scandals that began in 2018 and continued with the discovery at the start of 2019 that the La Joya Independent School District had spent $20 million on a water park, sports and learning center.

After it was revealed that district taxpayers were on the hook for $550,000 in operating losses at the complex and the district’s golf course, the school board in March approved spending almost $320,000 to buy out the contract of Alda Benavides, the superintendent who championed construction of the complex.

At about the same time, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development were burrowing into allegations that Frances Salinas had received $7,000 from a local woman to help her get a city contract. The city did give the woman, Sylvia Garces Valdez, a contract for public relations services and for running the city’s website, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

According to a federal criminal complaint unsealed just before the new year, Salinas approached a single unnamed city official with whom she had a “direct connection,” beginning in June 2018, according to the federal prosecutor.

The La Joya City Council approved the contract with Garces Valdez that month, paying her a $12,000 retainer not typical for that kind of city contract, plus $2,000 a month for ongoing services.

After Garces Valdez received the retainer, she paid Salinas $7,000 in cash, according to the criminal complaint.

The relationship between Salinas and Garces Valdez began to unravel when the La Joya Housing Authority board fired Salinas as its interim executive director in October 2018.

Salinas had been serving in an interim role after director Juan Jose Garza was charged with federal felony wire fraud in the role. Garza has another 36 months to serve in federal prison.

The board removed Salinas, a former board chairman appointed to the board by her father, for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act by failing to give the required 72-hour notice for an October 2018 meeting at which the board discussed questionable expenses added to one of the federal housing programs.

In December 2018, La Joya canceled its contract with Garces Valdez and last August the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicted her on a federal felony bribery charge. A trial date has not been set. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Salinas faces up to 20 years in federal prison and as much as a $250,000 fine if she is convicted on felony wire fraud charges.

Neither trial date has been set.

In November, La Joya voters elected former La Joya Police Chief Isidro Casanova to succeed the senior Salinas and two new council members to give the new mayor a reform majority.

“Big changes are coming for sure,” Casanova said. “That’s why we’re elected, because of change, and that’s exactly what they’re going to get.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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