Housing Authority vice chair pleads not guilty to bribery

Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com FBI agents conduct law enforcement activities at La Joya City Hall on Friday.

McALLEN — The La Joya Housing Authority vice chairwoman formally pleaded not guilty of bribing a city official with cash in an alleged quid pro quo.

According to an indictment filed against her, Sylvia Garces Valdez allegedly “gave, offered, and agreed to give cash to ‘Person A’ intending to influence and reward ‘Person B,’ an elected official for the City of La Joya, for their influence in granting a public relations contract to (Garces Valdez).”

Garces Valdez is accused of bribing the city official between June and November 2018 in an attempt to influence an unidentified elected city official to award a public relations position to her.

The unsealing of the indictment came shortly after FBI officials confirmed her arrest Monday morning at city offices.

Michelle Lee, the FBI spokeswoman based in San Antonio, said Garces Valdez’s arrest was part of a joint operation between FBI agents and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of the Inspector General.

The indictment, handed down by a federal grand jury Aug. 13, comes on the heels of FBI agents raiding the La Joya City Hall on Friday, when agents were seen removing boxes from city administrative offices in connection with an investigation that was not revealed.

Part of city hall was shut down due to the search, disrupting the city’s main phone lines. City staff also had to leave their offices and move to the police department while the search was ongoing.

Robert Jackson, the former city attorney for La Joya who resigned in 2017, speculated Friday that the agents were investigating misuse of public funds for personal use.

Mayor Jose “Fito” Salinas, said he didn’t want to speculate on what the agents were looking into but said he was aware that the FBI had spoken to their former city administrator, Mike Alaniz.

Alaniz retired from the city at the end of June but his attorney, Rick Salinas, confirmed he was the focus of a federal investigation.

Salinas, the La Joya mayor, said Friday that he was told he had to sign off on the inventory that the agents were going to remove from city hall.

“The thing about it is, how in the heck do I know what they’re taking?” he said. “I don’t keep inventory.”

“We don’t know what’s happening inside the building,” he added, referring to the agents’ search. “How can I sign something if I don’t know what they’re putting in the boxes.”

Of the situation, the mayor said he’d wait it out.

“Politics is politics and I’ll handle it that way,” he said.

Monday afternoon, during a detention hearing, Garces Valdez, who made her initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Peter. E. Ormsby earlier in the day, pleaded not guilty to the one bribery charge, court notes show.

The court, during the detention hearing, granted Garces Valdez a $30,000 unsecured bond, court notes show.

In its filing against Garces Valdez, the government seeks to seize about $10,000 of the woman’s property derived from “proceeds traceable to such offense,” the record shows.

A call placed to Mayor Salinas on Monday went unreturned.

If convicted of the federal bribery charge, Garces Valdez could face up to 10 years in federal prison and up to a $250,000 fine.