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Exclusive: FBI is investigating La Joya Economic Development Corp. project

4 weeks 1 day 21 hours ago Wednesday, January 29 2020 Jan 29, 2020 January 29, 2020 3:01 PM January 29, 2020 in News

LA JOYA — The FBI is investigating a La Joya Economic Development Corp. project managed by Frances A. Salinas, the daughter of former Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas.

The city of La Joya received a subpoena last week for “the original Arcoiris Loan documents dated April 14, 2016, and August 10, 2017,” according to records released under the Texas Public Information Act. The city also received a subpoena on Jan. 16 for recordings of La Joya EDC meetings.

“The city attorney advised us not to discuss anything regarding that,” said City Commissioner Roger Hernandez.

Special Agent Michelle Lee, a spokeswoman for the FBI, declined to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

The project started in 2015, when the La Joya EDC approved a $217,000 loan to Arcoiris Daycare LLC — a company owned by Sylvia Ochoa and Miguel Ochoa, a couple with big dreams and zero business experience.

Joseph Campos, a consultant from Edcouch, prepared their loan application, according to documents filed with the Hidalgo County District Clerk’s Office. Both the La Joya EDC and the Ochoas apparently trusted Campos, a former mayor of Edcouch and former president of the Edcouch-Elsa school board.

Mayor Salinas and Miguel Ochoa signed the loan agreement in April 2016. By mid-November, though, the Arcoiris Daycare bank account had a balance of just $708.08, according to La Joya Police Department records.

An investigation by the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office determined Campos had stolen at least $10,000. He pleaded guilty to theft, a state jail felony, in February 2019.

State District Judge Mario E. Ramirez Jr. placed Campos on community supervision for five years and ordered him to pay $130,000 in restitution. Campos couldn’t be reached for comment.

The missing money placed the Ochoas in a precarious position. They picked a new manager for the project: Frances Salinas, the daughter of Mayor Salinas and City Commissioner Mary Salinas.

Frances Salinas also served on the La Joya school board and managed the La Joya Housing Authority.

Sylvia Ochoa signed a letter that authorized Frances Salinas to “handle any and all business pertaining to my New Day Care,” according to a copy of the letter filed with the District Clerk’s Office.

The La Joya EDC approved a new, nearly $242,000 loan for the Arcoiris Daycare project on Aug. 10, 2017. Mayor Salinas, who also served as president of the La Joya EDC board, signed the loan agreement.

What happened to the money remains unclear. The daycare never opened for business.

“It was a lot of legal issues that happened,” said John Pena, who served on the La Joya EDC board, adding that he didn’t know the details.

Frances Salinas and Sylvia Ochoa had access to the Arcoiris Daycare bank account at BBVA Compass, according to documents obtained by KRGV-TV.

A source with access to the Arcoiris Daycare bank statements provided the documents to KRGV-TV on the condition of anonymity. KRGV-TV independently verified the information.

The BBVA Compass bank statements provided to KRGV-TV show that someone withdrew $500 from an ATM in La Joya on Feb. 15. Someone withdrew another $500 from an ATM on Tom Gill Road on Feb. 20.

Along with payments to contractors, the bank records show Frances Salinas withdrew money herself.

On Dec. 16, 2017, she withdrew $7,000, according to bank records obtained by KRGV-TV. She withdrew another $7,000 in January 2018.

The La Joya EDC also received at least two letters from Sylvia Ochoa, who wanted permission to pay Frances Salinas. The city paid $5,000 to Frances Salinas in January 2017 and $5,000 in July 2017, according to documents released under the Public Information Act.

Fabian Guerrero, an attorney who represents Frances Salinas, said she declined to comment. Sylvia Ochoa couldn’t be reached for comment.

The Arcoiris Daycare project became a point of contention in November 2019, when former La Joya police Chief Isidro Casanova challenged Mayor Salinas.

Casanova and his supporters, who called themselves “We are La Joya,” sparred with Mayor Salinas on Facebook. After the mayor touted projects completed under his administration, the Casanova campaign pounced.

“Are you referring to the Arcoiris Day Care that your daughter was supposed to open with a loan given by the EDC that was never paid back?” the Casanova campaign posted on Nov. 2.

Casanova and his supporters defeated Mayor Salinas in December, when the city held a runoff election.

Just six days after Casanova took the oath of office, Frances Salinas was arrested in San Antonio. She’s accused of participating in a bribery scheme that involved Sylvia Garces Valdez, a public relations consultant for the city. Both women pleaded not guilty.

Subpoenas started arriving at City Hall in January.

Mayor Salinas, who retired after the election, said he didn’t know why the FBI wanted information about the daycare project.

“I don’t have the slightest idea,” Mayor Salinas said.

Along with the Arcoiris Daycare loan documents and recordings of La Joya EDC meetings, the subpoenas requested copies of the city purchasing manual, accounting procedures and personnel manual. The city secretary also received a subpoena for a copy of her notary book.

“And they should expect full cooperation, going forward, from this administration,” said City Attorney Roberto Jackson.

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