A former La Joya mayor and his daughter could head to trial on federal wire fraud charges as early as April.
Jose “Fito” Salinas — who, in addition to serving as mayor, also served as the chair of the La Joya Economic Development Corporation — and his daughter, Frances Salinas De Leon, formerly the interim director of the La Joya Housing Authority, could see their day in court as early as April, depending on the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two are charged with wire fraud in connection to various alleged schemes involving the La Joya Housing Authority, the EDC and the city.
Also charged in connection to the case are former city employee Sylvia Garces Valdez, and former housing authority maintenance director, Ramiro Alaniz. Garces Valdez previously served as the vice chair of the housing authority’s board of commissioners.
Federal prosecutors allege the father/daughter duo was involved in kickback schemes using public funds.
In the first scheme, Frances Salinas allegedly agreed to help Garces Valdez obtain a public relations contract with the city of La Joya. In exchange for the position, Garces Valdez allegedly agreed to pay Frances a portion of the salary from that contract.
Prosecutors allege Fito Salinas, as mayor, was instrumental in getting the contract approved.
Garces Valdez, who was arrested in August 2019, was the first to be charged in the case. She faces one count each of wire fraud and federal programs bribery.
Frances Salinas was charged several months later, when federal agents arrested her in San Antonio on Dec. 23, 2019.
Charges against her father didn’t come to light until his arrest in February 2020.
And a third superseding indictment that was unsealed last August revealed the addition of charges against Alaniz, the fourth defendant in the case. He faces charges of wire fraud conspiracy.
In the newer charges, prosecutors allege that Fito Salinas, his daughter and Alaniz engaged in a kickback scheme involving the construction of the Arcoiris Daycare Center.
The scheme allegedly involved the use of federal funds from the USDA, which gave the La Joya EDC money for its revolving loan program.
Frances Salinas allegedly took over control of the construction project — including its finances — and helped the daycare owners obtain numerous loans via the revolving loan program.
Frances Salinas then allegedly instructed contractors to inflate invoices to obscure the kickbacks she allegedly received from the money lent to the daycare’s owners.
She allegedly hired Alaniz to serve as the general contractor on the project in order to facilitate the kickbacks.
“DE LEON instructed ALANIZ to inflate billing invoices and ALANIZ instructed some subcontractors to inflate their invoices to hide that DE LEON was being paid kickbacks with the money loaned to Arcoiris, LLC from the La Joya EDC,” the superseding indictment reads.
All four defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges, though their trial has been delayed due to the pandemic.
Dockets have piled up as COVID-19 continues to rage. But slowly, trials have begun to resume in federal court.
The court system has moved to hold trials in a larger space within the federal courthouse. Too, jury selection has been moved to a room with the capacity to allow for better social distancing.
And courts are equipped with “a lot of protective equipment” for attorneys, court staff and jurors, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane said during a status conference Friday.
“There is an enormous backlog of cases that need to be tried because we didn’t have trials for six or eight months,” Crane said.
The judge added that the number of defendants in federal custody has far outstripped the capacity to house them at the East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa, forcing custodial defendants to be housed as far away as Brooks and Webb counties.
Nonetheless, cases with multiple defendants remain too risky to try.
“I do not believe that we can safely have multi-defendant case trials yet,” Crane said.
However, Friday’s discussions indicated that two of the defendants in this case may change their pleas.
Attorneys for both Garces Valdez and Alaniz asked the court for more time to confer with their clients regarding potential plea agreements.
“If we could get 45 days, so that would give me the opportunity to have those discussions with the government as it related to how the case is eventually worked out,” said Carlos A. Garcia, who is representing Garces Valdez.
Meanwhile, Alaniz’s attorney, Gregorio Lopez, said his client may be amenable to changing his plea after seeing what evidence the government has against him.
“It was referred to as a ‘show and tell’ earlier, judge. And I think that’s what I need to do on this case,” Lopez said.
With the trial potentially whittled down to two defendants — Fito and Frances Salinas — Crane estimated it could begin as soon as April — if the pandemic threat has sufficiently decreased.
“My hope is that, by April, with enough people getting vaccinated and where we are with herd immunity, probably this is a case that I would try in April,” Crane said, adding that the case has already stagnated for over a year.
“It’s a pretty old case for this court,” he said.
Prosecutors estimated it would take up to two weeks to present their case, even with the number of defendants reduced by half.
“Regarding those two, they are the more culpable ones. They have the larger roles in the schemes,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarina S. DiPiazza.
“Miss Salinas is at least five of the four counts (sic). And Mr. Salinas is in that other count, so we would have to prove all five counts, so it will be the entire case,” she said.
DiPiazza requested the judge set a status conference in March in order to more properly gauge the state of the pandemic, as well as to give out-of-state witnesses ample notice of their need to travel.
A March status conference would also allow Fito Salinas to provide an update on his medical condition, she said.
Crane, though sympathetic to Salinas’ unstated condition, said that his condition would not “drive” the trial timeline.
“That doesn’t keep you from going to trial. You can just tell Mr. Salinas, unless he’s on his deathbed, we can bring him up here. We can accommodate whatever physical ailments he has,” Crane said.
“I’m not trying to be heartless, but I’m going to move this case. He just needs to be prepared for that,” Crane said.
Crane set the status conference for March 9.