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Former La Joya mayor pleads not guilty to wire fraud charges

5 months 3 weeks 3 days ago Thursday, February 13 2020 Feb 13, 2020 February 13, 2020 6:26 PM February 13, 2020 in News - Local

MCALLEN – Former La Joya Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas pleaded not guilty to federal wire fraud charges on Thursday.

Fito Salinas, 81, of La Joya pleaded not guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud during a hearing Thursday at the federal courthouse in McAllen.

He’s accused of participating in two separate corruption schemes.

In 2016, the city purchased the mayor’s house for $235,000, which the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas called a “highly-inflated rate.” In 2018, the city hired a public relations consultant. The city paid the consultant $12,000 — and the consultant paid the mayor’s daughter, according to court records.

“These are very serious allegations, sir,” said U.S. Magistrate Judge Juan F. Alanis.

Fito Salinas appeared in court Thursday wearing cargo pants and plaid shirt. He shuffled across the courtroom with his left hand cuffed to a pink chain wrapped around his waist.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarina S. DiPiazza asked the judge to set bond at $75,000 with a 10 percent cash deposit.

Attorney Richard Zayas of Brownsville, who represents Fito Salinas, said his client wasn’t a flight risk and suggested a $75,000 bond with no cash deposit.

“He’s 81 years old, judge,” Zayas said. “He’s not going anywhere.”

The judge agreed with Zayas and set bond at $75,000 with no cash deposit required.

Fito Salinas and his wife, City Councilwoman Mary Salinas, dominated La Joya politics for the past decade.

After he retired, Fito Salinas joined the La Joya school board. Mary Salinas won a seat on the La Joya City Council.

Fito Salinas joined her in May 2011, when he defeated longtime Mayor William “Billy” Leo. They stacked the City Council with supporters.

Their daughter, Frances A. Salinas, briefly served on the school board, and became a precinct chairwoman for the Hidalgo County Democratic Party. She also served as interim executive director of the La Joya Housing Authority.

During the past few years, though, rumors about corruption in La Joya dogged the Salinas family.

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General investigated at least five separate corruption schemes:

• In July 2016, the city purchased a house and a 0.57-acre lot from Fito and Mary Salinas for $235,000, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act.

The Hidalgo County Appraisal District valued the house and the land at less than $70,000.

“Salinas devised a scheme that resulted in the City of La Joya purchasing property he owned at a highly-inflated rate,” according to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Fito Salinas pleaded not guilty Thursday. Mary Salinas isn’t named in the indictment and hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing.

• In February 2017, the city purchased a piece of property owned by City Administrator Mike Alaniz’s sister.

“He used his position as the city administrator to get the city of La Joya, utilizing city funds, to purchase the property at an inflated rate, thereby receiving at least $24,000 that he was not entitled to,” DiPiazza, the assistant U.S. attorney, said during a court hearing in October, when Alaniz pleaded guilty to theft.

In interviews, Fito Salinas said he didn’t know about the land deal.

• In June 2018, the city awarded a public relations contract to housing authority board Vice Chairwoman Sylvia Garces Valdez, a friend of Frances Salinas.

Fito Salinas signed the contract on June 12. The following day, La Joya paid Garces Valdez a $12,000 retainer — and she paid Frances Salinas, according to the criminal complaint against her.

Fito Salinas, Frances Salinas and Garces Valdez pleaded not guilty.

• In October 2018, the La Joya Housing Authority board fired Frances Salinas.

Claims about corruption, mismanagement and financial irregularities prompted an investigation by the HUD Office of Inspector General.

After the board fired her, Frances Salinas denied any wrongdoing.

• In January 2019, the FBI sent the city subpoenas for La Joya Economic Development Corp. documents.

The subpoenas requested documents on the Arcoiris Daycare project, which Frances Salinas managed.

La Joya approved a $242,000 loan for the project in August 2017. The daycare never opened for business. Where the money went remains unclear.

Attorney Fabian Guerrero, who represents Frances Salinas, said she declined to comment on the daycare project.

The indictment against Fito Salinas charged him with participating in the public relations contract scheme and the scheme to purchase his house.

If convicted, Fito Salinas faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on each count and a fine not to exceed $250,000.

Fito Salinas left the federal courthouse Thursday accompanied by his wife. They declined to comment.

A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for April 3.

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