TEA takes over another school district after extortion, kickbacks, bribery convictions

(The Center Square) – The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has taken over another school district in Texas, this time, La Joya Independent School District in Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande…

(The Center Square) – The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has taken over another school district in Texas, this time, La Joya Independent School District in Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley. 

The takeover occurred after a TEA investigation last year found that two LJISD trustees and three central office administrators engaged “in acts of extortion, receiving kickbacks, bribery, theft, wire fraud, and money laundering,” all felonies, for which they were convicted nearly two years ago. 

The previous board of trustees argued their actions didn’t represent the entire board but fell on deaf ears. On Thursday, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath announced a new superintendent and seven new board members had been appointed to replace them. They are all Hidalgo County residents; four reside in LJISD boundaries. 

Morath said they are “tasked with guiding the focus of the district toward good stewardship of public resources and ensuring public trust while continuing to align district goals and efforts toward positive student outcomes and academic success,” also publishing a list of their bios. 

“Their willingness to serve under unique circumstances is a testament to their character and care for kids,” Morath said, adding that he was “confident they will succeed in charting a path forward that will enable the LJISD elected board to eventually resume its role and sustain a culture of success in the district.” 

The action was in line with TEA’s recommendation issued last year, prompting Hidalgo County DA John Scott’s attempt to block a TEA takeover. Last summer, the State Office of Administrative Hearings heard the case; last October, judges sided with the TEA. 

The TEA investigation responded “to multiple complaints regarding allegations that members of the LJISD Board of Trustees [and central office administrators] engaged in fraud as well as violated conflict of interest an contract procurement laws.” Its investigation was based on a review of court documents, documents submitted by LJISD and interviews with several individuals, its report states. 

The state investigation began after a multi-law enforcement agency criminal investigation was launched by the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Department of Agriculture, Texas Department of Insurance and McAllen Police Department. Five officials pleaded guilty to federal charges and were convicted and sentenced, according to a series of announcements by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas. 

In one announcement, one LJISD trustee, Armin Garza, pleaded guilty to receiving more than $234,000 in bribes and “participated in a conspiracy to steer lucrative energy savings contracts at various political subdivisions in Hidalgo County, including La Joya ISD.” In another, former LJISD assistant superintendent Jose Luis Morin pleaded guilty to taking $28,000 in bribes and participating in the scheme. 

In another, officials Andres Morales and Alex Guajardo were convicted of bribery and receiving kickbacks as public servants and officials “in exchange for official votes or recommendations in support of granting energy savings contracts at various Hidalgo County political subdivisions,” U.S. Attorney Jennifer Lowery said. They forfeited $1 million between them. Morales also admitted he lied about having a felony conviction on an application to purchase a firearm.

Former LJISD board member Oscar Salinas also pleaded guilty to extortion charges related to LJISD contracts, as did former Penitas mayor Rodrigo Lopez for committing fraud against LJISD, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

TEA’s investigation found that former LJISD board president Alex Cantu failed to disclose a conflict of interest with a Rio Grande Valley nonprofit that contracted with LJISD, paying Cantu and his wife over $271,000 in “consulting services” in 2018-2019. 

Around the same time, LJISD officials were criticized for using $20 million of taxpayer money to construct a water park, natatorium and planetarium, in a district where 94% of its students are economically disadvantaged, ABC 13 News reported. The Texas Public Policy Foundation found that while LJISD lost revenue of up to $250,000 in its first year running the park, taxpayers were on the hook for nearly $300,000. The former LJISD superintendent resigned but still received a severance package of $320,000.

TPPF has urged state lawmakers to implement stronger transparency and accountability measures to limit severance packages and ensure they aren’t awarded to “bad actors.” 

Last year, the state legislature passed a law making it easier for TEA to implement measures to respond to failing schools and corruption. Last year, the TEA’s takeover of Houston ISD was finalized after years of litigation, which followed a pattern similar to that of LJISD’s. 

 The takeover occurred after allegations of corruption were made and after the FBI raided HISD’s headquarters in early 2020. Subsequently the home of the district’s former COO was raided; he was later indicted for allegedly embezzling $6 million of taxpayer money.