Most Top Officials in Texas Town Arrested by Feds for Corruption

Friday, February 05, 2016
Mayor Ricardo Lopez (photo: Crystal City)

By Nomaan Merchant, Associated Press


DALLAS (AP) — Almost every top official in a remote South Texas city was arrested Thursday under a detailed federal indictment that accuses them of taking bribes from contractors and sending city workers to help an illegal gambling operator nicknamed "Mr. T."


Crystal City's mayor, city manager, mayor pro tempore, one of three current councilmen and a former councilman were all arrested under an indictment obtained by the U.S. attorney's office in San Antonio, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney said.


A second councilman is already charged in a separate case with smuggling Mexican immigrants. That leaves just one councilman not facing federal charges in Crystal City, a town of about 7,100 people about 50 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.


Once billed as the "Spinach Capital of the World," Crystal City's logo features a cartoon of Popeye, and a spinach festival with a cook-off and a beauty pageant draws tens of thousands of people each year. But in recent months, the town has been in the news for turmoil at City Hall and allegations of misuse of public money.


"What happened is nothing to celebrate. It's something sad that happened to us," said the remaining councilman, Joel Barajas, on Thursday. "By all means, we need to move forward."


The indictment accuses the town's leadership of using their positions "to enrich themselves by soliciting and accepting payments and other things of value." Also charged was Ngoc Tri Nguyen, alleged to be an operator of illegal gambling rooms, who was nicknamed "Mr. T."


Crystal City Mayor Ricardo Lopez took $6,000 from Nguyen to buy a vehicle, the indictment alleges. In return, he allegedly waived some taxes for Nguyen and had employees close competing casinos that violate state law but exist informally throughout South Texas. Lopez allegedly told city employees inspecting Nguyen's property to "make it easy."


City Manager William James Jonas and Mayor Pro Tempore Rogelio Mata are accused of giving a contractor a $12,000 payment "in exchange for payments and other things of value."


And Lopez, Rogelio Mata, current councilman Roel Mata and former councilman Gilbert Urrabazo are accused of voting to keep Jonas as city attorney and city manager at a salary reported by local media to exceed $200,000. In exchange, Jonas provided payments and other illegal benefits to the four leaders, the indictment alleges.


None of the six men had attorneys listed in federal court records, and several messages left at City Hall were not returned.


When Barajas, who was elected to the council last year, tried to have Jonas' contract suspended last month, the rest of the council boycotted the meeting so it couldn't go forward.


Barajas said then that the city had nearly $2 million in unpaid bills and was facing bankruptcy.


Separately, Crystal City Councilman Marco Rodriguez was accused last month of smuggling three Mexican immigrants in the back of a pickup truck.


Residents interviewed Thursday said the arrests are painful but necessary.


"Crystal City is a good town," said 67-year-old Maria Sanchez Rivera, a lifelong resident. "If you do wrong, you have to face your consequences. We've got laws for everything and we've got to abide by what the law says."


Richard Durbin Jr., the U.S. attorney for San Antonio, said he hoped the indictment would help restore public confidence in local government, but that his office could only go so far. None of the officials will immediately lose their positions.


"What we can do is that first step," Durbin said in an interview. "In the end, it falls back on the citizens to make the next decision on who they put in those offices, because that's how the system works."


To Learn More:

Is This the Most Corrupt Town in the U.S.? (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)

Is This the Worst Small-Town Police Force in the U.S.? (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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