A South Texas school board member resigned last week after admitting he accepted bribes and kickbacks totaling nearly a quarter million dollars.

La Joya ISD Trustee Armin Garza is the latest public school official convicted on federal public corruption charges for participating in a conspiracy to steer lucrative contracts to certain vendors in exchange for cash.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Garza received at least $234,500 for using his influence as a school board member to award the district’s “energy savings contracts” to a specific company:

In exchange, Garza and other co-conspirators received bribes and kickbacks from subcontractors selected to work on the energy savings contracts. As part of his plea, Garza admitted to using his influence over LJISD employees who were elected officials at other political subdivisions in Hidalgo County. The employees subsequently received promotions or pay raises. They also voted to award or attempted to award the same company energy savings contracts at three other political subdivisions in Hidalgo County.

Garza was first elected to the school board in 2016. He ran on a platform of “reinvesting in our students and educational system” and touted his experience as an LJISD educator and Peñitas City Council member. Garza’s wife and mother both worked as teachers in La Joya, and his father was also a school board trustee and city councilman.

La Joya ISD

La Joya ISD is a low-income district near the southern border in Hidalgo County.

Under Texas’ Robin Hood school financing system, the state takes “excess” property taxes “recaptured” from wealthier districts and redistributes the money to poorer districts like La Joya. The tax money is intended to be used for educating students.

Despite relying on taxpayers in other districts to fund their operations, La Joya officials were spending so much on “energy savings” that it was worthwhile for a vendor to pay tens of thousands in bribes to secure a contract.

The district has a history of questionable spending decisions.

La Joya ISD earned notoriety in 2018, when the district opened a $20 million water park and sports complex paid for with general revenue funds.

Under criticism for spending state tax dollars on the water park complex, which reported a $550,000 operating loss in its first year, longtime La Joya Superintendent Alda Benavides (who was getting paid $340,000 a year) retired in 2019.

The district paid Benavides a $319,000 severance plus 21 weeks’ worth of unused vacation and sick time.

In November 2020, Benavides was elected to La Joya’s school board and is now board president.

A Pattern of Public Corruption

Garza isn’t the only public school official caught enriching himself with tax money meant for educating students.

Last month, a former Houston ISD executive was arrested on similar public corruption charges involving bribes and kickbacks from a district contractor. Several former district officials, including past school board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones, already admitted guilt in the multimillion-dollar bribery scheme.

Another La Joya school board member, J.J. Garza, resigned in 2017 and pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud in a construction bid-rigging scheme connected to his job as the city’s public housing director.

Former La Joya Mayor Fito Salinas, who’d also served on the school board, was indicted last year on federal public corruption charges involving a land-sale swindle and directing a city contract to his daughter. He pleaded guilty in July.

Armin Garza is scheduled to be sentenced March 18. He agreed to forfeit the cash netted in the bribery scheme, but his plea deal will likely reduce or eliminate any prison time.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.