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Old 02-27-2005, 09:11 AM
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Default Scandal dims hopes in Willacy County - Texas State Jail

Scandal dims hopes in Willacy County

Optimism over new jail facilities is overshadowed by bribery cases

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Rio Grande Valley Bureau

RAYMONDVILLE - When traditional jobs in agriculture and the oil patch began to shrink, Willacy County saw salvation in prisons and jails.

A 540-bed jail opened for federal prisoners in 2003 and a 96-bed county jail is now nearing completion, both located next to an existing state jail at the main crossroads of this rural county in the deep Rio Grande Valley.

In addition to the jobs provided at the facilities, county officials envisioned ringing cash registers as inmates' families made visits, spending money at local hotels, gas stations and restaurants.

"It meant jobs," Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence said of the county jail for federal inmates, which cost $24 million to build. ''Unfortunately, we don't have a whole lot of businesses here. It's mostly farming, and even some farmers and ranchers got out of that. If you don't work for the county, the city or the schools, that's about it."

The two jails, when operating at full capacity, would add a combined 480 jobs to the county economy.

But today, the optimism has been overshadowed by scandal. A pair of county commissioners await sentencing in April after admitting taking bribes from corporate executives in exchange for voting on jail contracts. The executives haven't been identified in federal charges.

The bribery scandal and resulting charges are just the latest crises in what have been a rough few years for Willacy County, where a third of the 20,000 residents live in poverty and less than half of those old enough to have earned high school diplomas have one.

Slow growth

Though it is located 30 miles from the Texas-Mexico border, Willacy County has seen little NAFTA-related development, and population growth has been less than 1 percent over the last few years. During the same time, neighboring Cameron County grew by 8 percent while Hidalgo County next door enjoyed nearly 12 percent growth.

The longtime county auditor pleaded no contest to theft charges in a $200,000 embezzlement scam last September and was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years probation; the county treasurer was removed for incompetence for 60 days last September; and county leaders have twice — this year and last — secured $1 million in emergency loans from a local bank to keep afloat. The loans were in addition to raising property taxes, laying off 18 county employees and canceling health care coverage for the 88 left.

Compounding all that is a dramatic drop in the number of inmates being housed in the federal facility. Since November, the U.S. Marshals Service has removed more than 200 prisoners to jails in neighboring Cameron County, where jail costs are nearly half what Willacy jailers are paid under the existing federal contract.

Willacy's 2005 budget counted on a projected $300,000 payment from Management Training Corp. of Centerville, Utah, the private management firm that operates the jail. Willacy County receives a $2 share of the $70-plus daily payment received for each federal inmate. Today, there are about 300 inmates in the 540-bed jail, and the private management company acknowledges it is losing money.

The lagging occupancy has prompted criticism of the 96-bed county jail under construction, but Spence says it will pay for itself. The jail will be managed by the sheriff's office.

The bribery investigation

Executives with the companies that built and manage the federal jail strongly deny any involvement with the bribery scandal. Hale-Mills Construction Inc., a Houston firm that built both the federal jail and the nearly completed county jail, which cost $7.5 million in financing and construction, did not return repeated calls for comment. But the firm issued a statement denying any knowledge of the bribes.

''Hale-Mills is aware through the media that two commissioners have been convicted of bribery in Willacy County, Texas, but that is the extent of Hale-Mills' knowledge of the matter," the statement said, adding that the firm ''has no knowledge of any improper conduct of any elected officials or any other parties to the contracts relating to the two facilities."

Edmundo Ramirez, a McAllen attorney representing Corplan Corrections of Argyle, the project manager, said, ''We have no involvement with that (bribery) at all."

Meanwhile, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle said, "It is safe to assume that this investigation has not been completed," but he would not release any other details.

At coffee shops and restaurants in Willacy County, the talk is focused on who else could be ensnared in the federal net, since Justice Department officials indicate more charges may be filed.

''People here are waiting for the other shoe to fall — to see what happens next," said Sonya Tijerina, who with her husband owns the Boot Company Bar & Grill in Raymondville. ''We're in limbo, and limbo is not a good feeling."

Muddled records

The ongoing bribery and embezzlement scandals come as Willacy County attempts to recover from years of what county officials characterize as deficit spending by a trio of county commissioners.

County accounting records were so muddled that independent auditors walked away from the job last summer because ''the books were far from being acceptable for auditing," wrote an accountant with a Brownsville CPA firm hired by the commissioners court to perform an outside audit.

"This is a desperate financial situation," acknowledged newly appointed auditor Salvador Pendas, the third county auditor in 16 months.

County Judge Simon Salinas, who took office in 1995, said the county had socked away a large surplus by 1998. After one of his court allies left office, a new majority on the court was forged by three commissioners.

Around the time the new majority emerged in the commissioners court, the county's knowledgeable auditor, Eleazar Garcia, left for a city manager's job, and a treasurer with little previous financial experience was elected.

Credit card bill

District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra said the first sign of any criminal wrongdoing surfaced when the county's public facilities corporation — created in 1999 to build the federal jail — received a $45,700 bill for a credit card account.

Authorities soon learned ex-county auditor Armando Rubalcaba, who was hired after Garcia left in late 1996, had opened the account without telling other county officials, Guerra said. Rubalcaba also chaired the jail facilities' board of directors.

The bill included thousands of cash withdrawals the auditor made from a convenience store he owns, as well as charges for trips to Las Vegas resorts, airline travel and expensive meals.

Rubalcaba, fired for incompetence in October 2003, pleaded no contest to theft charges last year and agreed to tell investigators all he knew about corruption in the county. He accepted a plea bargain that allows him to be free on probation for 10 years, and he must make restitution to the county.

After that, the investigation moved quickly, and on Jan. 4, two commissioners — Jose Jimenez, 67, and Israel Tamez, 58, — pleaded guilty to accepting more than $10,000 ''from particular corporate representatives who were selected for design, construction, maintenance and management of the jail."

So far, Justice Department officials have refused to say who made the payoffs.

Sheriff Spence and other local officials are anxious for the federal inquiry to conclude.

''There's a cloud hanging over everybody's head, and we need to get this cleared up so we can move ahead," Spence said.

But these days, a popular pastime in Willacy County is speculating on who might be arrested next, what scam or scheme revealed, or what new financial crisis will emerge.

''It's a beautiful place to live, but it's a shame that somehow the county doesn't have leadership, no pride, no cohesiveness," said Tijerina, the restaurant owner.

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