In August of 2022, the mayor of the South Texas town of Peñitas was convicted on a federal theft charge but refused to immediately leave office.
Now, State Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D–McAllen) has filed legislation that appears to be inspired from this situation, as his bill provides a mechanism for the removal of office of municipal leaders convicted of certain criminal offenses.
Senate Bill 232 as drafted would amend the Local Government Code to automatically remove any person holding public or appointed office who is convicted of certain criminal offenses. These offenses include bribery, theft of public money, perjury, coercion of a public servant or voter, tampering with government records, misuse of official information, and abuse of official capacity. The public official would also be automatically removed from office if they are convicted of conspiracy or attempt to commit any of these crimes.
After the public official is convicted and removed, the bill also calls for the local governing body to fill the vacancy or order an election. In addition, the bill also states that once convicted, the public official will remain removed from office even if they appeal their judgment.
The legislation comes after former Peñitas mayor Rodrigo Lopez admitted to aiding and abetting a La Joya Independent School District employee in defrauding the school district. Lopez had bribed a school district employee for the approval of more than $70,000 worth of purchases from Xizaka, LLC, a company he owned, from March 2018 through August 2018. In total, Lopez made a profit of $34,923. Lopez agreed to return the $34,923 as restitution as part of his guilty plea.
Upon Lopez’ conviction, the city council was silent regarding whether he was still in office or not, and Hinojosa wrote a letter to the city council to ask for clarification. Lopez finally resigned in a letter that touted his accomplishments and made no mention of his conviction.
The bill as drafted would have resolved this controversy quickly; upon his guilty plea, Lopez would have been instantly removed from office, and the Peñitas City Council would have been charged with filling his vacancy.
The bill has been referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee.