LA JOYA, Texas (ValleyCentral) — Corruption remains a problem at La Joya ISD, an attorney for the Texas Education Agency said Monday and the state can’t afford to wait for another round of indictments to address the situation.
That’s why the state wants to appoint a board of managers to govern La Joya ISD, said Matthew Tiffee, an attorney who represents the agency.
“The FBI has done its job,” Tiffee said during a hearing on Monday. “And now the public servants of TEA must do theirs.”
Two administrative law judges presided over the hearing, which took place by videoconference. They heard nearly eight hours of arguments and testimony Monday.
“For whatever reason, the Texas Education Agency has looked at some old, old, old acts,” said attorney John B. Scott of Austin, who represents La Joya ISD.
The agency started investigating La Joya ISD in 2022 when two former school board trustees and three former administrators pleaded guilty to public corruption charges. They admitted to accepting bribes, soliciting kickbacks, and circumventing the competitive bidding process, among other crimes.
Former school board President Oscar “Coach” Salinas was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison. Former school board Trustee Armin Garza and the administrators are awaiting sentencing.
The agency released a report on La Joya ISD in May 2023, which concluded the school board created an environment that allowed trustees to break the law. It also faulted the school board for failing to properly supervise administrators.
La Joya ISD disagreed with the agency’s conclusions.
“LJISD acknowledges the felonious offenses committed by two former trustees and three former administrators. Additionally, LJISD concedes that there are issues it needs to address and has begun work to address said issues,” according to the report. “The District states, however, that the illegal actions were conducted by individuals and not the LJISD Board ‘as a body corporate.’”
Tiffee took a dim view of that argument.
“Stating that a board cannot be held accountable for the acts of trustees because trustees are not allowed to act individually on behalf of the board is like a criminal defense attorney saying that a defendant cannot be held accountable for a bank robbery,” Tiffee said, “because it is against the law to rob a bank.”
The report recommended a board of managers for La Joya ISD. When a board of managers is appointed, the school board is stripped of all power and becomes a purely advisory body.
La Joya ISD requested a hearing and hired Scott, a prominent lawyer and lobbyist, to represent the district.
Scott charges $750 per hour. His law firm, Scott & Scott, billed La Joya ISD nearly $106,000 for three months of legal work, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act.
The agency should be focused on La Joya ISD’s accomplishments, Scott said. La Joya ISD received an “A” on the agency’s financial integrity assessment and a “B” for academic performance.
“This school district is amazing,” Scott said. “The people who work here are amazing.”
Tiffee, meanwhile, summarized the FBI investigation and questioned school board President Alex Cantu about RGV Read and Feed, a nonprofit organization that provided free meals to La Joya ISD students.
Alex Guajardo, a La Joya ISD administrator who served on the Peñitas City Council, created RGV Read and Feed in March 2017. The nonprofit organization provided free meals to children through a Texas Department of Agriculture program.
Cantu’s wife, Vicky, served on the RGV Read and Feed board of directors with Guajardo and his wife, Roxanna, according to documents filed with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.
La Joya ISD approved an agreement with RGV Read and Feed in June 2017. Cantu, though, didn’t file a conflict disclosure form until June 2019.
According to Cantu, he asked a lawyer for advice. The lawyer said Cantu didn’t need to fill out the form because La Joya ISD didn’t pay RGV Read and Feed.
“That was the recommendation they gave me at the time,” Cantu said. “And as soon as they told me that I needed to do it, I filed it right away.”
Cantu said he didn’t remember the lawyer’s name.
Tiffee asked Cantu if he thought the community would have wanted to know about his relationship with RGV Read and Feed.
“Well, that’s your opinion,” Cantu said. “And I respect that.”
RGV Read and Feed became controversial after IRS filings revealed Cantu and his wife had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.
The organization paid Cantu nearly $137,000 for “consulting” in 2018, according to documents filed with the IRS. His wife received nearly $162,000.
Cantu received another $135,000 for “consulting” in 2019. His wife received nearly $150,000.
Tiffee asked Cantu what he did to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees.
“Everything that falls into a scope of a consultant, that’s what I did,” Cantu said.
Tiffee asked Cantu to provide a specific example of something he did.
“I don’t recall at this time,” Cantu said.
Cantu also said he didn’t know what, exactly, his wife or Guajardo did on a daily basis.
“Let’s make sure I understand,” Tiffee said. “You are unaware of your participation, your wife’s participation, or Mr. Guajardo’s participation. That’s pretty much your testimony up to this point?”
“At this time, yes,” Cantu said.
La Joya ISD terminated the agreement with RGV Read and Feed in November 2019.
Guajardo resigned from the Peñitas City Council and his position with La Joya ISD in 2022, when he pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge.
After the hearing, Cantu told CBS 4 News he purchased two vans for RGV Read and Feed. Cantu also provided CBS 4 News with photos that showed him preparing and serving food.
“I sat in that hearing room listening to TEA representatives, and I was struck by the apparent agenda driving their investigation,” Cantu said in a statement released on Tuesday morning. “It seemed less about uncovering the truth and more about justifying a predetermined decision to install a board of managers over our district.”
Cantu said he didn’t think the agency conducted a comprehensive investigation.
“What truly troubled me was hearing a TEA witness criticize RGV Read and Feed. This witness had the audacity to say the non-profit was mismanaging funds, citing ‘excessive’ administrative costs as a red flag,” Cantu said in the statement. “But when pressed, he admitted to not even being familiar with the Texas Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for such programs — guidelines that RGV Read and Feed has been diligently following.”
Cantu called the agency’s investigation “biased.”
“I assure you, I will continue to fight any decision that isn’t backed by solid, credible evidence,” Cantu said in the statement. “I remain hopeful that as this process unfolds, the truth will rise to the surface.”
The administrative law judges must submit a report called findings of fact and conclusions of law by Oct. 9.
After reviewing the report, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will decide whether or not to appoint a board of managers.