Texas Rangers Investigating La Joya ISD and Agua SUD

A former water supply corporation, placed in receivership by the government in 2005, has found itself once again entangled in corruption allegations currently being investigated by the Texas Rangers.

In 2005, La Joya Water Supply Corp. was shut down by the government after a state audit reported $170,000 was missing from the registers during a six-month period. It was then placed in receivership by a state district court. It’s manager, Carmen “Chickies” Ramirez was found guilty of theft but her case was later overturned and dismissed in 2008.

In 2007, the 80th Texas Legislature appropriated funds in Senate Bill 3 to maintain all waters throughout Texas. It also called for the succession of La Joya Water Supply Corp. by the new Agua Special Utility District (SUD).

Concerns over the new company arose as residents were promised “the water won’t taste any different.” And they were right, it’s still dirty.

Last year, in an effort “to increase transparency and accountability and to curb conflicts of interests within the Agua SUD board,” State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), with the help of State Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg), filed Senate Bill 814 during the 85th Texas Legislature. SB 814, a local bill directed exclusively towards the Agua SUD, called for the termination of employees who served as elected officials of other taxing entities who employed board members.

In the case of Agua SUD, its board hired two La Joya ISD school board trustees as employees. Four of these Agua SUD board members are La Joya ISD employees.

In other words, elected board members from two different taxing entities are hiring each other’s board members as salaried employees of their respective districts.

“The La Joya school district is the largest employer within Agua SUD and they have a majority of (four) board members who work for La Joya ISD,” Hinojosa stated, “Obviously, the La Joya school board politically controls the (Agua SUD) board.” As a result, the bill called for the immediate termination of employment for Oscar “Coach” Salinas (President) and Armin Garza (Vice-President) who serve on the La Joya ISD school board.

Conflicts of Interest

Agua SUD approximately serves 15,000 residents in the Palmview, Peñitas, Sullivan City, La Joya, and western Hidalgo County area. The SUD has a seven-member board of directors who represent these areas. Hinojosa filed his bill early in February, leaving the SUD in haste to create contracts for the employees it would affect. Only two out of 68 employees received contracts due to “immediate action which is in the best interest of the Agua SUD.”

Within these contracts, only Salinas and Garza were guaranteed employment — for five years after May 1, 2017. Salinas was guaranteed an annual salary of $70,000 employed as a community outreach coordinator, while Garza was guaranteed $85,000 as a project manager. SB 814 would terminate these contracts on September 1, where the board voted  severance packages totaling $489,000 between them.

The Water is Filthy

On May 9, 2017, a mere eight days later, employee contracts within the school district were renewed at a La Joya ISD Special Called Board Meeting. Four contracts pertained to Agua SUD board members who all conveniently received promotions, new positions, as well as dramatic increases in their stipends and salaries. Two SUD board members’ salaries, President Rogelio Hernandez III (Athletics Administrator) and Treasurer Esequiel Ortiz (P.E./Health Specialist), are highly suspect as their stipends appear irregular compared to their previous allowances.

During the 2016-2017 school year, Ortiz received a $3,071.90 stipend for coaching; the same follows for Hernandez, who received coaching stipends in 2015-2016 approaching $6,000. However, in the new contracts for 2017-2018, both these individuals received equal $10,000 stipends, but records reveal they don’t coach any sports teams at La Joya ISD.

Board Secretary Lloyd Loya and Board Director Cesar Rodriguez have also seen an increase in their salaries since they’ve been elected to the SUD. Sharing a similar narrative, these individuals were given cushy positions with dramatic salary increases without the credentials to support it.

Cesar Rodriguez began with the school district in 2002 as a printer operator making $16,223 annually. His current employment with La Joya PD as a Pupil Discipline Compliance Officer (created in 2017) provides him with an annual salary of $62,418.78. Lloyd Loya, who started as an AC Apprentice making $20,000 annually, now is the Energy & Utilities Director pulling in $80,559.96 a year.

Once again, it appears La Joya ISD represents yet another example of public school districts hiring their buddies for dubious positions, diverting funds away from classrooms.

According to Glassdoor, “teacher salaries at La Joya ISD can range from $44,139 – $51,816.” Comparisons of salaries/stipends within La Joya ISD reveal that teachers are getting short-changed.

Since their election and/or appointment to the Agua SUD board in 2016, Texas Scorecard has traced an increase in salaries and stipends amongst the four board members. Between these four SUD board members the total increases equate to over $75,000 in school funding.

Recently, Progress Times obtained five grand jury subpoenas related to the Agua SUD from the Texas Attorney General’s Office. It called for records, time sheets, emails, text messages, and all communications between Oscar Cancino (former Executive Director, who approved severance payments) to Garza, “Coach” Salinas, Hernandez III, and Ortiz.

According to a local source, these severance payment packages, coupled with simultaneous salary increases at La Joya ISD, explain the Texas Rangers investigation of the Agua SUD.

This information was turned into Hidalgo County District Attorney’s office, which District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez refused to comment on publicly, as it’s an ongoing investigation. However, a separately issued public statement revealed their office has “requested the Texas Rangers to join their review to determine if there has been a criminal offense committed.”

Texas Scorecard has submitted additional open records requests with La Joya ISD to learn more about the $10,000 stipends paid to Hernandez III and Ortiz.

Sources have expressed concern over the current board, and wonder if these ongoing investigations will lead to a reoccurrence of the state shutting down the water board corporation as it did in 2005.

The Agua SUD will be hosting four Board of Directors elections this upcoming May.

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Miriam Cepeda

Miriam Cepeda is the Rio Grande Valley Bureau Chief for Empower Texans. A second-generation Mexican American, she is both fluent in English and Spanish and has been influential in grassroots organizing and conservative engagement within Hispanic communities. If you don’t find her “Trumping”, you can find her saving animals, running her dog, hiking the Andes, or volunteering with the U.S. National Park Service.

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