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FBI arrests former La Joya mayor, investigation focuses on land deal and public relations contract

1 week 2 days 4 hours ago Wednesday, February 12 2020 Feb 12, 2020 February 12, 2020 2:00 PM February 12, 2020 in News - Local

Federal agents on Wednesday arrested former La Joya Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas after a wide-ranging investigation that focused on corruption at La Joya City Hall and the La Joya Housing Authority.

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General arrested Jose Adolfo “Fito” Salinas, 81, of La Joya on wire fraud charges Wednesday. He’s accused of participating in two separate corruption schemes.

The first scheme involved the former mayor’s house, which the city purchased for $235,000 in July 2016, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act. The second scheme involved a $36,000 public relations contract.

What, exactly, the FBI was investigating became the talk of La Joya in August, when agents executed a search warrant at City Hall. They returned in January with subpoenas for La Joya Economic Development Corp. records.

“As far as what they’re doing with that information, they haven’t told us,” Mayor Isidro Casanova said Tuesday. “They just took all the documentation with them. So we need to be careful with that one. We want to make sure that we don’t get in their way.”

Fito Salinas remained in federal custody Wednesday afternoon and couldn’t be reached for comment.

In a December interview, though, Fito Salinas said he believed the FBI might arrest him.

“If they’re going to blame anybody, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be me,” Fito Salinas said, adding that he didn’t do anything wrong.

THE LAND DEAL

In 2016, then-Mayor Fito Salinas and his wife, City Councilwoman Mary Salinas, lived in a modest home on Reyna Farias Street in La Joya.

The Hidalgo County Appraisal District valued the property at $69,467 — a 0.57-acre lot worth $11,757 and a home worth $57,719.

They lived near the city cemetery.

“As you recall the City of La Joya took the opportunity to purchase the adjacent property to your home for the expansion of our existing cemetery, due to lack of space,” City Administrator Mike Alaniz wrote to Fito and Mary Salinas on Jan. 6, 2016, according to a copy of the email released under the Texas Public Information Act. “Since then, we are again faced with the same dilemma of limited property for the city cemetery.”

Alaniz suggested Fito and Mary Salinas sell their house to La Joya.

“We are graciously asking if you both would consider selling your property to add cemetery space. Due to state laws, the City cannot purchase cemetery property if the land is not adjacent to the existing cemetery,” Alaniz wrote. “If you are interested in selling your property, please le (sic) me know.”

Whether or not Fito and Mary Salinas responded to the email remains unclear. Documents released by the city don’t show any follow-up messages.

City Attorney Roberto Jackson, however, responded to Alaniz on Feb. 9.

“Pursuant to your request, I researched the provision that deals with the acquisition of property by a municipality. Title 8, Subtitle C, Chapter 273 of the Texas Local Government Code deals with the Acquisition of Property for Public Purposes by Municipalities, Counties, and other Local Governments. I didn’t see a provision whereby a municipality can purchase land for the purposes of a cemetery. You might want to contact TML to see if there is an exception,” Jackson wrote, referencing the Texas Municipal League. “Call me if you have any questions.”

Asked about the email, Jackson said he couldn’t comment without approval from the FBI and federal prosecutors.

“We’re currently looking into the situation,” Jackson said. “We will be submitting a statement to you for publication as soon as we can get clearance from the parties involved.”

Alaniz resigned and pleaded guilty to theft in October.

“Well, I hope everybody involved does the right thing,” said attorney Rick Salinas of Mission, who represents Alaniz, when asked about the mayor’s arrest. “I hope the mayor does the right thing too.”

The City Council met to discuss the property on Feb 15, 2016. Fito Salinas and Mary Salinas recused themselves from the discussion and left the room.

“Mr. Mike Alaniz addressed City Council and stated that an appraisal of the property would be ordered for the property,” according to the meeting minutes. “After discussion a motion to approve, contingent to the appraisal report of the sale of property in the amount of $235,000.00 was made by Commissioner Geny Salinas, Commissioner Victorio Salinas second the motion, all in favor, the motion was carried unanimously.”

Why the City Council agreed to pay $235,000 before the appraisal isn’t clear.

Eleven days later, Alaniz sent another email to Fito Salinas.

“The City of La Joya is once again inquiring or looking for more cemetery land adjacent to the city’s cemetery. We are once again running out of space and looking into your property located next to the cemetery. The is (sic) City of La Joya is very much interested in purchasing your property for future cemetery land,” Alaniz wrote on Feb. 26, according to a copy of the email released under the Public Information Act. “If you are interested in our request please let me know.”

Fito Salinas responded the following day.

“Yes Mike, for the benefit of the City I don’t mind negotiating an offer for the property. I will have to wear TWO hats. One as the Mayor. Question do we have money budgeted for this transaction?” Fito Salinas wrote. “The other would be that I own the property.”

The city hired McAllen-based Real Estate Appraisal Services to conduct an independent appraisal of the property, according to documents released under the Public Information Act. It valued the property at $692,100.

That valuation — roughly 10 times the county Appraisal District valuation — is apparently based on comparisons to commercial property in La Joya and Mission.

La Joya closed the deal in July 2016.

The city paid $235,000 for the 0.57-acre property, according to city records. It also purchased the mayor’s home.

In a news release, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas called the purchase price “a highly-inflated rate.”

La Joya sold the home, which the city described as “a 2000 double wide manufacture (sic) home in excellent condition,” in December 2017.

City Water Plant Director Isidro Venencia purchased the home, according to documents released under the Public Information Act. He agreed to pay $20,000 — and paid at least $18,000 in cash.

Mary Salinas didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday. She hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing.

THE PUBLIC RELATIONS CONTRACT

In 2018, the city of La Joya hired Sylvia Garces Valdez — who worked for the La Joya Independent School District and served on the La Joya Housing Authority board — to handle public relations.

Garces Valdez had never handled public relations for a city. She was, however, a friend of the mayor’s daughter, Frances A. Salinas.

The contract included an unusual provision: In addition to $2,000 per month, the city agreed to pay Garces Valdez a $12,000 retainer when she signed the contract.

“SALINAS indicated that she had connections with Official A, a City of La Joya official, who would ensure the approval of the contract and later amendments, if necessary,” according to the criminal complaint against Frances Salinas, who was arrested in December.

Garces Valdez and Fito Salinas signed the contract on June 13, 2018.

“After GARCES received the initial retainer of $12,000 via check, SALINAS provided GARCES via text message with instructions on how to cash the check and how to divide the taxes on the income,” according to the criminal complaint, which refers to Frances Salinas by her surname. “Additionally, SALINAS also instructed, via text message, GARCES to deliver $7,000 in cash to SALINAS.”

THE INDICTMENT

The FBI arrested Garces Valdez in August. She pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Frances Salinas was arrested in December. She pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick announced the mayor’s arrest on Wednesday. He’s scheduled for an initial appearance on Thursday morning.

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