Joel Barajas was the only Crystal City council member to show up at the office Friday.
That’s because everyone else he works with is facing felony charges.
Five top officials in the Texas city were arrested Thursday under a federal indictment accusing them of taking tens of thousands of dollars in bribes and helping the operator of an illegal gambling operation who went by the nickname “Mr. T.”
The indictment swept up the city’s mayor, mayor pro tempore (who both have city council votes) and a council member, as well as the city manager, a former city council member and the alleged gambling operator, Ngoc Tri Nguyen. None of the men has commented about the charges or filed any pleas in response to the indictment.
A fourth person on the city council, Marco Rodriguez, was arrested last month on human smuggling charges. According to KENS, Rodriguez admitted to being hired to drive undocumented immigrants across the border from Mexico.
That left just Barajas at the City Hall in Crystal City, which has about 7,500 people and is 130 miles southwest of San Antonio. He has been on the council for nine months, according to KSAT, and he could tell as soon as he arrived that something fishy was going on.
“I knew some things were not being correctly taken care of,” he said.
According to the indictment, those in the town leadership who were charged “used their official positions to enrich themselves by soliciting and accepting payments and other things of value” from Nguyen and others. The document accuses the officials of voting to award contracts in exchange for bribes, extorting payments from contractors, turning a blind eye to Nguyen’s illegal gaming business while taking action to shut down would-be competitors, and agreeing to reduce Nguyen’s taxes in exchange for him waiving debts, among other dealings.
Mayor Ricardo Lopez, the indictment alleges, instructed city inspectors to “make it easy” while looking at Nguyen’s property. Authorities said he also made extra effort to shut down other operators of “8-liner” gaming rooms, which are nominally illegal in Texas but flourish informally in the southern part of the state. In exchange, he allegedly accepted $6,000 from Nguyen to buy a car.
It also says that Lopez and the other officials — Mayor Pro Tempore Rogelio Mata, council member Roel Mata and former council member Gilbert Urrabazo — voted to extend city manager and city attorney William Jonas’s lucrative contract, in exchange for his support in their various bribery schemes.
The San Antonio Express-News reported that Jonas, a “one-time Republican lobbyist down on his luck,” was paid about $180,000 a year after being hired without ever having worked as a city attorney or even applying for the job. His fees were extraordinarily high for a small-town city attorney — the lawyer for a neighboring town made less than one-tenth as much — and even higher than the attorneys for bigger cities such as Laredo and Corpus Christi.
In December, Jonas surrendered to authorities after being charged with assault for allegedly manhandling an elderly woman who was trying to enter a city council meeting, according to the Express-News. He has pleaded not guilty.
Residents told KENS that they tried recalling city leaders, but Jonas used his power as city attorney to block their effort.
When Barajas tried to have Jonas’s contract suspended last month, the rest of the council simply didn’t show up at the meeting, the Express-News reported. In their stead were eight uniformed police officers, “in case things got out of hand.”
Crystal City was $2 million in debt and facing bankruptcy, Barajas told KENS at the time.
Richard Durbin Jr., the U.S. attorney for San Antonio, told the Associated Press that he hoped the indictment would help restore some public confidence in the local government. If convicted, each official faces up to 10 years in federal prison and as much as $250,000 in fines, according to CNN.
But Durbin’s office doesn’t have the power to remove the officials from their positions, the U.S. attorney said — only voters can do that.
“What we can do is that first step,” Durbin told the AP. “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.”
Barajas said he wouldn’t pressure his colleagues to resign — if they ever show up at a council meeting again. (All of the men except for Rogelio Mata are out on bond, but none appeared at work Friday, according to KSAT). But he does want them to fire Jonas.
And he wants to get back to work.
“What happened is nothing to celebrate. It’s something sad that happened to us,” Barajas told the Associated Press. “By all means, we need to move forward.”