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By G. Romero Wendorf

I’m not even an attorney, but I’m going to hand out some free legal advice just the same. Are you or someone you love currently involved in a criminal enterprise nearing collapse? Is your crooked house of cards about to fall apart? Can you feel it crumbling? Can’t sleep? Stomach cramps? Paranoid about when the feds are gonna bust down the door at 5 a.m.?

If so, run to the closest FBI offic and turn yourself in. First one there wins the prize.


Yes, the prize being, the lightest sentence – either little time served in the federal pen, or if you get real lucky, no time at all.

But don’t dilly-dally, thinking, should I or should I not (rat out mis amigos)? 

In Spanish, there’s the phrase: “No apunte el dedo.”

Don’t point the finger (at someone).

The heck with that. When it comes to prison time, point it all day long. Just don’t point it at the innocent, as the feds are sometimes so fond of doing (the case of the McAllen oral surgeon comes to mind).

The heck with that. When it comes to prison time, point it all day long. Just don’t point it at the innocent, as the feds are sometimes so fond of doing (the case of the McAllen oral surgeon comes to mind).

If your gut’s telling you that the feds are about to conduct a raid on your home or business, or the public entity you pretend to represent, beat them to the punch.

If you know you’ve committed a crime(s), cooked the books, taken a bribe, handed out a bribe, and it’s a conspiracy of more than a few, then become a rat and turn in your compatriots. They won’t thank you. That’s pretty obvious. But who cares? When it comes to spending time in the fed lockup, it’s each man, or in some cases, each woman, for him or herself. Looking out for numero uno should be your first priorit.


What brought this to mind recently was what’s going on in Progreso. Will the Texas Education Agency take over the school district? Or will it not? The new school board guys are saying, hey, what happened in the past is the past. It’s not our fault that the city and school district morphed into some family criminal enterprise. Give us a break.

In the meantime, I wrote a column two months ago, pointing out that the FBI launched a new specialized task force here geared solely toward targeting Valley public corruption: The Rio Grande Valley Public Corruption Task Force, which is comprised of FBI special agents and Texas Rangers (not the baseball team, but the guys with guns). The Task Force will be working in harmony with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security and the Officeof Housing and Urban Development to uncover public corruption.

As that July 15 column made clear, the FBI agent in charge of the new task force has a name straight out of Hollywood casting: Rock Stone. He makes no bones about his task. Last year, he told a San Antonio Express-News reporter:

“We’re going after school boards, county commissioners, tax assessment offices, health care fraud, anywhere public money is received. There is an inherent public trust in those offices and they must be held to a higher standard.”

I was speaking recently with a retired assistant U.S. attorney who spent more than 20 years prosecuting public-corruption cases, and I said to him, “Why is it that elected officials and the people with whom they do business haven’t yet figure out that public corruption is being investigated like never before, and still, so many of them do stupid stuff like getting into bribery, kickbacks and the cooking of (financial) books?

Said he: “It’s a never-ending line. When you look at a state like Illinois where (4 of the last 7) governors have been convicted (of corruptions charges). You’d think that if you’re smart enough to be elected governor to one of the most populous states in the country, you’d at least be smart enough to know how to do it.” 

(In other words, how to be a successful crook and get away with it).

In the relatively small city of Progreso, south of Weslaco, population 5,507, as most well-read Valley newshounds already know, three brothers and a father (the Velas) were connected to the school district and city while engaged in a pay-to-play bribery scheme and embezzlement scheme for approximately seven years (approximately 2005 to 2012) before the law finall brought them to justice. One of the Vela brothers, Omar, was the city’s mayor, while the other, Michael, served as the Progreso school board president. Their dad, Jose, served as the godfather, using a local restaurant to broker under-the-table deals. Officiall, his day job was titled: school district director of maintenance and transportation. 

The third Vela brother, the city’s ex mayor pro tem, Orlando Vela, worked as the school district’s risk manager. He pleaded guilty to billing the school district for office supplies he never delivered. Orlando Vela’s wife, the district’s business manager, helped facilitate the crime by approving payment of the bogus invoices.

Interestingly enough, there were other vendors who took part in the pay-to-play bribery scheme, but apparently, unlike the unlucky architect, Jesus Bustos, they were quicker to cooperate with FBI special agents. As a result, their names have never been publicly disclosed, nor were they ever apparently sentenced to any time or made to pay back any money they made by bribing their way into working for Progreso ISD.

In other words, the Vela family business was running along great, thank you very much, until the feds had to stick their noses into their business by conducting a criminal investigation labeled “Operation Legal Progress;” an obvious nod to the city’s name Progreso, which is Spanish for Progress. The federal investigation lasted seven years, between 2005 and 2012, which is when the Velas’ house of stacked cards started to crumble. 

All four Velas pleaded guilty and were sentenced in a Houston federal courtroom last August (2014). Their sentences ranged from 151 months (Jose, the dad) to 10 months (Orlando, the district’s business manager). Their fines ranged from between approximately $310,000 and $13,000.

Caught up in the pay-to-play deal was a local architect, Jesus Bustos, who pleaded guilty as well to bribery and kickbacks and was sentenced to five years in the federal slammer.

Interestingly enough, there were other vendors who took part in the pay-to-play bribery scheme, but apparently, unlike the unlucky architect, Jesus Bustos, they were quicker to cooperate with FBI special agents. As a result, their names have never been publicly disclosed, nor were they ever apparently sentenced to any time or made to pay back any money they made by bribing their way into working for Progreso ISD.

They included a school attorney, the owner of a building supply company, and a construction company president, all of whom served as witnesses against the Vela criminal enterprise. They gave testimony to federal agents; wore hidden “wires;” and admitted that they took part in the bribery scheme, AKA, pay-to-play, according to an FBI press release that followed the Velas’ final sentencing. And yet, in the end, they skated free in exchange for their cooperation.


Last month, the Texas Education Agency finish edits special accreditation investigation of Progreso ISD and sent it a letter dated Aug. 24. It wasn’t flattering, to say the least. Basically, it said that the under the Velas’ stewardship, or lack there of, the district had harmed the public’s interests. As a result, it would like the state Commissioner of Education to lower the district’s accreditation rating and appoint a Board of Managers to oversee the corrective actions that the TEA wants to see Progreso ISD pursue before it can once again be deemed whole.

The letter made clear these actions were only related to the district’s financial woes. Apparently, other divisions of TEA are looking into other areas of concern the state agency is still investigating.

According to the TEA letter, there are multiple examples of misconduct and malfeasance that took place between approximately 2005, when the Velas ran the district for all intents and purposes, with the help of its superintendent, Dr. Fernando Castillo, a former PSJA ISD Board Trustee. 

While he was superintendent at Progreso, few could ever figure out why Castillo had such a sweet contract deal. His critics alleged that it was so he would see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil while the Velas ran the district like their own bank casino, while tied to the city. Castillo always maintained his innocence and was never charged with any crime.

However, it didn’t escape the notice of Castillo’s critics that he was perhaps getting the sweetest deal of any public school superintendent in the Valley during his tenure there. For example, in 2013, he was earning an annual salary of $226,000 to oversee approximately 2,200 students. Twenty miles to the west, one of his peers, Dr. Daniel King, was earning approximately $261,000 to supervise the education of approximately 32,000 students at PSJA ISD. Big disparity. In other words, in the relatively poor town of Progreso, which has one of the highest property tax rates in Hidalgo County (both the city and school district rank third), taxpayers were paying their superintendent $102.72 per student. While taxpayers in PSJA were paying Daniel King a relatively paltry $8.15 per student.

In addition, according to the TEA report released last month, the Progreso school board and its superintendent were guilty of several instances of malfeasance and misconduct, which include but are not limited to:

• The sale of Castillo’s personal vehicle to the school district for approximately $21,000, which was then allegedly promptly returned to him (Let’s Make a Deal).

• Payment of $6,500 paid to Castillo’s daughter-in-law, and unsupported payments made to an office supply company, a bar and grill (pour me another one), board members, and district employees (I’ll buy the next shot).

• Misuse of the district’s credit card by the former superintendent.

• Weak internal controls that allowed district personnel to approve financial transactions benefitting their own family members.

• Noncompliance with construction procurement statutes and a lack of documentation regarding the selection of an architect, a construction manager agent, and the prime contractors (AKA, let’s pass the money around and screw the paperwork).

• Failure to secure district documents and records (that’s why they make a paper shredder).

• And last but certainly not least: Non-compliance with conflicts-of-interest disclosure requirements (can we help it if we’re all related?)

TEA then lays out an entire list of what Progreso ISD must do to reclaim its district and free it from the hands of the state.

Since 2014, Progreso ISD has been guided by a group of conservators, placed there by TEA after the entire Vela family saga sagged. Every quarter (three months), the group makes a report about the district’s conduct and sends it to the TEA. The letter that the Texas Education Agency just sent to the Progreso ISD Board of Trustees last month concerning its financial concerns recommends that the entire school board be replaced with a Board of Managers.

The board may have a hard time fighting it, considering that it’s comprised of three new board members with limited experience. One is a city employee, and two are (this is not a joke) college students. All told, five new people have been elected to the school board since the conservator team took over in early 2014. 

And to make matters worse, according to the conservators, board members rarely show up to school board meetings (meet me at the bar and grill).

Apparently, according to several sources, the school district plans to fight the recommendations made by both the TEA and the conservator team. Provided, of course, a quorum can be convened.


Meanwhile, getting back to the initial subject of this column – if you or any one you know or love is currently or has recently been involved in any act of public corruption (or corruptions if it’s in the plural sense), run, don’t walk, to the nearest FBI office and turn yourself in.

First one to confess usually gets the best deal with the feds. Let ‘em wire you up and get the goods on your compatriots over lunch. Last man, or woman, standing gets hit with the harshest sentences.

Hidalgo County is rife with rumors of federal investigations, which only makes sense now that FBI Special Agent Rock Stone is on the scene with his special public corruption task force. These guys aren’t in town for fun. They’re in town to take down some corrupt public officials and some corrupt private vendors, although the public officials always get hit the worst when they show up in federal court.

The private sector guys, well, they get greedy. But the federal judges seem to really have it in for corrupt public officials when it’s time for sentencing. If I had 10 dollars for every time I’ve heard the two local federal judges, Ricardo Hinojosa and Randy Crane, lecture public officials about how they’ve betrayed the public’s trust and confidence and given Hidalgo County yet another black eye by committing a crime while holding public office, I’d be a rich guy. Maybe not as rich as some of our public officials, but rich nonetheless.

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