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Federal Prison Problematic For Texas Officials

A 500-bed federal detention center may have caused more problems than it solved for cash-strapped Willacy County, Texas. Three county commissioners have already been convicted of accepting kickbacks from companies involved with the prison, and a state senator's ties to three contractors has raised ethical questions. The detention center is now the focus of a federal bribery investigation and a lawsuit filed by the county.
Between June 2000 and March 2003, Willacy County commissioners Israel Tamez, 58, and Jose Jiminez, 67, accepted a series of bribes totaling more than $10,000 in exchange for their votes in awarding lucrative prison contracts. Both men pled guilty to bribery charges on January 4, 2004.
Also charged and convicted was David Cortez, 70, a former Webb County commissioner. Cortez plead guilty in May 2005 for conspiring to obstruct, delay and affect commerce" for helping secure a contract for the detention facility. He admitted funneling at least $39,000 to county commissioners to help an unnamed consulting firm get part of the prison contract.
Sentencing for Tamez and Jiminez was postponed until January 2006 pending the outcome of the continuing federal investigation; Cortez's sentencing also was postponed by the federal district court in a sealed order.
The three convictions resulted from a yearlong probe involving county auditor Armando Rubalcaba. Rubalcaba cooperated with investigators after pleading no contest to stealing about $65,000 in county funds.
Another player in the burgeoning scandal is state Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, who has worked for three prison contractors. Over about four years, Corplan Corrections of Argyle, Texas; Management and Training Corporation (MTC) of Utah; and Aguirre Corporation of Dallas used the senator for public relations, marketing and consulting work. Combined, the companies paid Lucio about $100,000 a year.

Lucio contends he did nothing wrong and asserts the money was earned. When asked if he thought the firms would pay him in excess of $100,000 a year if he was not a senator, Lucio said, it might seem like a lot of money, and it is in our area of the state, but there are senators and representatives that are making much more money on one case than I do in one year. So, I am not ashamed of what I make. I worked for that.
Of course, that depends on how you define work. In 2002, Lucio said that Corplan had been his client for about three years. Yet, according to Corplan's James Parkey, Lucio never developed a single ad for the company. Public relations doesn't require a product in terms of written materials," Parkey said in 2002. [Lucio] keeps our name in front of people. We are very pleased with the work provided."

When the investigation heated up however, Lucio quickly suspended his relationship with the companies, citing his desire to avoid the perception" of impropriety. In a letter dated January 18, 2005, Lucio informed Corplan, Aguirre and MTC that he was taking a leave of absence" from working with the firms.

Lucio reportedly did not list payments from the three companies on financial disclosure statements until 2004. Previously, in 1999, Lucio had authored legislation clarifying that counties could enter into contracts with a private company for the design, management and construction of jails.

For its part, in May 2005 Willacy County filed a lawsuit against two companies involved in the prison project, Corplan Corrections and contractor Hale-Mills, Inc. The lawsuit alleges that the firms conspired to bribe county commissioners to select them for the prison project. We're not going to tolerate companies coming in to take advantage of small counties and offering kickbacks and going on like it's business as usual," said District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra. Whoever offers kickbacks is just as guilty as those taking kickbacks.

According to Guerra the county could win millions" in damages because a financial firm involved in the prison project had sold approximately $25 million in bonds roughly $10 million more than the $14.5 million it cost to build the prison. The extra money has gone to pay interest, said Corplan attorney Edmundo Ramirez.

Guerra also observed that the county may get title to the prison. The contract would be null and void, so technically the prison would end up belonging to the county free of charge," he stated. Under Texas law, contracts based upon illegal activity are void. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Willacy County by former Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, who is working on a contingent fee that will pay him 40% of any damages resulting from the suit.

Willacy County faced more problems in October 2004 when the prison's population dropped from near-capacity to 240 prisoners. MTC pays the county $2 a day for every prisoner, said Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence, who lobbied in Washington, D.C. for more prisoners. The county had anticipated $300,000 in federal prison money to augment its $3.8 million general fund budget. However, the U.S. Marshals Service transferred prisoners to lower-cost facilities due to a year-end money crunch.
Federal prosecutors declined to name the companies involved in the continuing bribery investigation. However, public records reveal that Corplan, Aguirre, MTC and Hale-Mills Construction of Houston were among the primary contractors for the prison project.

Pursuant to their plea agreements, Tamez and Jiminez are expected to supply prosecutors with information that may lead to charges against the companies that bribed them. Someone gave them that money," stated County Judge Simon Salinas. Whoever made these guys get dirty, they're going to go down, too.

Senator Lucio, who has not been charged in connection with the investigation, stated he is anxiously awaiting to see who is at fault here or who violated any laws." He said he had been in touch with the companies he previously represented and remarked, they have assured me they are not involved in illegal actions."

Sources: The Valley Morning Star, The Brownsville Herald, AP, San Antionio Express-News

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