ELSA, Texas (ValleyCentral) — Nine black binders. Three receipt books. A weekly planner.
When federal agents raided Edcouch City Hall and Elsa City Hall last month, they seized nearly 100 items, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act.
The documents — a “Receipt for Property” the FBI provided to Edcouch on Oct. 18 and an “Evidence Recovery” log Homeland Security Investigations provided to Elsa on Oct. 26 — reveal new details about the raids.
Both the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations seized information about game rooms. The FBI, however, also seized Edcouch Police Department documents, fuel records and information about two border security programs.
“If the FBI hits Edcouch, that means they probably have the direct hand-to-hand bribery,” said Douglas A’Hern, a criminal defense attorney who doesn’t represent anyone in Edcouch or Elsa. “And if Homeland Security hits Elsa, that means they probably don’t have the direct hand-to-hand bribery and they’re going the money laundering route.”
FBI agents handled the raid at Edcouch City Hall. Homeland Security Investigations, which is part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, raided Elsa City Hall with assistance from the Criminal Investigation division of the IRS.
The search warrants also suggest Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI may be working on separate cases.
Agents raided Edcouch City Hall as part of an investigation that involved bribery and racketeering, according to a copy of the search warrant obtained by CBS 4 News.
The search warrant served at Elsa City Hall, meanwhile, mentioned a federal law against “illegal gambling businesses,” said Elsa City Attorney Gus Acevedo. Homeland Security Investigations allowed city officials to review the warrant, Acevedo said, but didn’t allow them to keep a copy.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas declined to comment.
Both the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations appear to be focused on game rooms — businesses that allow customers to play slot machines and win prizes.
“These things are marginally legal,” said attorney Ric Gonzalez of Edinburg, who helped Sullivan City draft rules and regulations for game rooms in 2015.
It’s legal to set up a game room. It’s legal to play slot machines. But paying winners in cash remains illegal.
Players may only win “prizes, toys, or novelties, or a representation of value redeemable for those items, that have a wholesale value available from a single play of the game or device of not more than 10 times the amount charged to play the game or device once or $5, whichever is less,” according to the Texas Penal Code.
Some game rooms simply ignore the law.
Others hand out silver-colored pellets. Winners take them to nearby boutiques or silver exchanges, which swap the pellets for cash.
The boutiques and silver exchanges usually operate from tiny sheds just a few steps away from the game rooms and don’t appear to serve any other customers.
Elsa started regulating game rooms in September 2022 after being approached by the Texas Game Room Owner’s Association.
“This was a business opportunity that was brought to us. And it was explained to us that it was a legit business,” said Elsa Mayor Al Perez. “Of course, we found out otherwise.”
It was also a moneymaker for Elsa, which charged $50,000 just to apply for a game room permit.
By January 2023, the city had already collected $300,000 from six applicants, according to documents released under the Public Information Act.
Elsa wasn’t the only city that cashed in.
Sullivan City, Edcouch and La Villa also decided to regulate game rooms.
“Based on the information we got from attorneys, there’s a way on how it can be legal,” said Edcouch Mayor Virginio “Virgil” Gonzalez Jr.
The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office didn’t buy it.
Deputies shut down Sizzling Sevens, a game room that paid Elsa for a permit, and charged employees with engaging in organized criminal activity. Less than a week later, the Sheriff’s Office raided Tejano Treasures, a game room in Edcouch.
The Sheriff’s Office wasn’t the only law enforcement agency investigating game rooms.
FBI agents showed up at Edcouch City Hall on Oct. 18 armed with a search warrant.
The warrant authorized FBI agents to seize financial information, Edcouch Police Department documents, minutes from Edcouch Board of Aldermen meetings and “all records related to gaming permits.”
“They’re trying to follow the money,” said attorney Al Alvarez of McAllen, who has represented hundreds of clients in federal court during the past two decades. “And they’re trying to follow a paper trail as to who’s involved. Who was present at the vote? Who spoke there? Who were the lawyers that were involved? What pitch did the lawyers make that this was legal?”
The FBI is focused on public corruption, Alvarez said, not gambling.
“Any time you have officials in public office, it’s always about corruption,” Alvarez said. “It’s not about a little old lady going to gamble somewhere.”
The FBI provided Edcouch with a three-page “Receipt for Property,” which showed what agents had seized.
> The city’s only signed copy of Ordinance 2022-01, which contained rules and regulations for game rooms.
> Three receipt books.
> Five folders that contained game room documents.
> A weekly planner.
> Fuel receipts.
> Two binders that contained notes from city meetings.
> Edcouch Police Department records on a man named Saul Aguilar.
> A document labeled “Victim report.”
> Documents on Almaraz Towing and Auto Recovery, which tows cars for the Edcouch Police Department.
> Information on the Local Border Security Program and Operation Stonegarden, two border security grants.
“It’s so broad. There’s really nothing specific. That’s what threw me off,” said Edcouch City Manager Victor Hugo De La Cruz. “Of course, the game room stuff, that’s pretty specific. I understand the Stonegarden information. But then there’s police stuff. There’s other stuff. So it’s a spectrum of things.”
Among the documents seized by the FBI were records listed as “Marijuana Suspect Saul Aguilar” and “Saul Aguilar Arrest paperwork (copies).”
A police officer arrested Saul Armando Aguilar, 23, of Edcouch in June, when he was caught speeding on State Highway 107.
Aguilar refused to identify himself, according to a police report Edcouch released under the Public Information Act, and had what appeared to be a small amount of marijuana in his pocket.
The officer arrested Aguilar on suspicion of reckless driving, failure to identify and possession of marijuana.
“It was a small amount of marijuana,” said Edcouch police Chief Mark Leal.
The Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office had advised Edcouch that prosecutors didn’t want to accept cases that involved very small amounts of marijuana, Leal said, so the department cited Aguilar and released him.
“He was booked in. He was charged. He couldn’t come up with the bond, which was $500 for each charge,” Leal said. “He couldn’t come up with that money. So we have to release him on a citation because we don’t have the facility to hold somebody for days and days until they come up with the money.”
Aguilar couldn’t be reached for comment at a phone number listed in public records. Attorney Carlos Ortegon of Mission, who represents Aguilar in a separate case, said the FBI hadn’t contacted him.
Almaraz Towing and Auto Recovery towed Aguilar’s car.
“We do the towing for the PD and the county around that area,” said Armando Gomez Jr., the manager at Almaraz Towing.
Along with the Edcouch Police Department, the company also tows cars for the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Sheriff’s Office and local constables whenever they ask, Gomez said.
It’s not clear why the FBI wanted information on Aguilar or Almaraz Towing.
“Where they’re going with this is a secret,” said Alvarez, the attorney. “Only the agents know that.”
A week after the FBI raided Edcouch City Hall, agents with Homeland Security Investigations showed up in Elsa.
Agents searched Elsa City Hall and two local game rooms, Sizzling Sevens and The Lucky Hive.
Elsa City Manager Juan Jose “JJ” Ybarra said employees answered questions from Homeland Security Investigations and cooperated with the search.
“All of them told the truth,” Ybarra said. “We have nothing to hide.”
Homeland Security Investigations provided Elsa with a two-page “Evidence Recovery” log, which showed what agents seized.
> Two digital recording devices Elsa uses to tape city meetings.
> Budget documents and bank statements.
> Nine black binders from the executive conference room.
> All city ordinances from 2010 to 2023.
> A folder that contained information about game room fees.
> Blank game room applications.
> Information about inspections conducted by the local fire marshal.
> Miscellaneous documents copied from a city laptop.
> A deposit book.
> Elsa Economic Development Corp. ledgers.
Unlike the search at Edcouch City Hall, the search at Elsa City Hall appeared narrowly focused on financial information and game room documents.
“All that money is accounted for,” said Perez, the mayor. “And that’s what they want to look at.”