Former La Joya school board president gets 14 months in prison for corruption

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McALLEN — Former La Joya school board president Oscar “Coach” Salinas has been sentenced to one year and two months in federal prison for his role in a massive Western Hidalgo County public corruption scandal.

He was further ordered to undergo substance abuse counseling and drug testing after twice violating his bond conditions by using and testing positive for cocaine.

“Good or bad, the responsibility was to look after your community. You weren’t doing that. … You were looking after your own welfare,” U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez said before sentencing Salinas Tuesday afternoon.

“People who earn that privilege … We are entrusted to look after the wellbeing of others, so, sort of taking care of our community,” Alvarez said, adding that she becomes “troubled” when public officials violate their oaths.

Salinas is among a score of former elected or public officials in Western Hidalgo County who have been implicated in a broad-reaching public corruption scheme involving vendor contracts, bribery, kickbacks, political retaliation and more.

Salinas originally pleaded guilty to one count of extortion in March of 2022.

The former school board president had an $8,000 per month consulting contract with Jacinto Garza and his Mercedes-based firm L&G Consulting and Engineering.

As the 2020 election season got underway, Salinas learned that Garza supported one of his political adversaries, Everardo “Ever” Villarreal, who was at the time running in the Democratic Primary for the Precinct 3 seat on the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court.

During a re-arraignment hearing last March, Salinas admitted to threatening to sever La Joya ISD’s contract with its insurance agent, Ruth Villarreal Insurance Inc., lest Garza renegotiate Salinas’ payment contract.

Ruth Villarreal, the principal of the insurance agency, is Everardo Villarreal’s wife.

“If Defendant’s contract was not renegotiated to include additional monetary payments Ruth Villarreal Insurance’s contract at LJISD would be terminated,” federal prosecutors said last spring.

But Garza refused to renegotiate his payment deal with Salinas, who was running for reelection to the school board that year.

“Garza subsequently terminated the agreement with (Salinas), and (Salinas) subsequently cast an official vote as an LJISD trustee to terminate Ruth Villarreal Insurance’s contract,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. said then.

Salinas’ threatening messages to Garza subsequently became public as part of a February 2020 lawsuit the La Joya school district filed against Ruth Villarreal insurance alleging breach of contract and fraud.

Ruth Villarreal later filed the profanity-laden text message exchange as part of a countersuit against the district in February of 2021.

She claimed the payment terms of the insurance contract were part of a settlement she and the school district had reached after she had been awarded a $3.35 million judgment in a separate 2013 lawsuit against the district.

The more recent countersuit further details the political retaliation Ruth Villarreal and her husband allegedly experienced at the hands of Salinas and members of his “TeamUn1ted” political slate.

“LHISD through the above listed slate of candidates continued to make threats against Villarreal and her husband. Members of that slate publicly stated that they would terminate Villarreal’s contract,” including Salinas who, “was kind enough to document his criminal conduct in writing,” Ruth Villarreal’s countersuit states, in part.

But in federal court on Tuesday, Salinas and his attorney, Christopher “Chris” Sully claimed that the insurance contract was a bad deal for the school district and its taxpayers.

“Voting against the contract was the right thing to do,” Sully said, adding that a study conducted by the school district later found the contract rate was two to three times higher than the industry average.

“Regardless of what the propriety was of whether the contract was valid or not … the manner in which the defendant conducted himself … there is no excuse,” Lopez, the prosecutor, said Tuesday.

In September 2021, a state district court awarded Ruth Villarreal a $2.7 million settlement.

Sully conceded the point.

And when given an opportunity to address the court, so, too, did Salinas, adding that his drug addiction contributed to his bad decision making.

Meanwhile, Salinas said he has made a turnaround after his bail was revoked last year.

Since then, he has started a literacy group for inmates at the East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa.

He has also taken part in various enrichment programs offered through the prison, pursued mental health help and has become sober, he said.

“The biggest problem in my life has been substance abuse,” Salinas said.