Good cop, bad cop?

Donna ISD's Police Chief Arrests Superintendent, Board Trustee

By G. Romero Wendorf

DONNA–School superintendent Jesus Rene Reyna and a board trustee/former board president, Ernesto Lugo, were arrested last week on bribery charges. Question: was it a vendetta on the part of the district’s police chief, Roy Padilla, who initiated the dual arrests? Thanks to his being sacked last year by the superintendent? Or was it simply good police work?

As a school district, when you have yellow crime scene tape barring entry into the superintendent’s office,you know you have a problem. Especially when it’s the school district’s police chief who put it there.

Poor Donna. For awhile, things were looking bright. For a district awash in lawsuits during most of the 2000s, culminating in the $1.2 million settlement in favor of former Donna Superintendent Andres Martinez in 2009, things began to change for the better during the last part of that decade. Or at least that seemed to be the general consensus throughout the community.

A new superintendent was hired: Roberto Loredo, who had served for years as a PSJA ISD assistant superintendent, and after that, Donna ISD moved on up the road toward sunnier climes. And to help matters, he had a solid board majority behind him that seemed intent on improving the district as opposed toward handing out favors to selected cronies. Or at least those were the old allegations that had followed Donna ISD around for years – pay to play. Meanwhile, the district’s scores improved, the fund balance built back up, a new high school was built, and the number of lawsuits drastically dropped.

And then things took a sharp turn for the worse in late 2013. Loredo suffered from some health issues, and the superintendent’s reigns were turned over to his second-in-command, Jesus Rene Reyna. After Loredo officiallyannounced his retirement in mid-2014, Reyna was subsequently chosen by the school board to become the district’s full-time superintendent in June of that year after acting as the interim for approximately six months prior to that.

But in addition to Loredo’s health issues in 2013, the FBI arrested a handful of politqueras and their campaign manager and charged them with buying votes dating back to the 2012 school board election. To date, none of the candidates in that race have been charged as being complicit in the crimes, which subsequently led to the guilty pleas of the politiqueras and the campaign manager involved. But the bad PR enveloped the district.

To make matters worse, Donna ISD suffered the tragic death of longtime Board Trustee Alfredo Lugo Jan. 1, 2014, throwing things into a real tail spin.

From that point forward, Donna ISD started down a path that involved a new board trustee elected in a special election in April 2014, Albert Sandoval, which led to a board shift, which was capped off with a new board election this past November. The current board majority now stands at 5 to 2. The two in the minority include Ernesto Lugo and Efren Ceniceros. 

The current board president is Albert Sandoval, who was the candidate who won the special election in April 2014. The other four board trustees who typically side with him include: Eloy Infante, Nick Castillo, Tammy Ramos, and Elpidio Yañez Jr.

But it was after the November 2014 school board election that things really started to change.

NEW LEGAL BILLS, SETTLEMENTS

The new board majority dismissed the previous school attorney, who was charging Donna ISD a monthly retainer of approximately $8,000, and in its place brought in Robert J. Salinas, to the tune of $25,000 per month (retainer), plus $225 an hour billed on top of that.

Currently, his monthly bills to the district are approximately $30,000. Salinas’ legal bill to the district for February 2015 was $34,731.35. This newspaper hasn’t confirmedthis yet, but allegedly Salinas’ legal bill for the month of April was approximately $85,000.

And during all of this time, Lugo, as well as Ceniceros (to a lesser extent), have spoken out time and again that the board majority is playing too fast and loose with taxpayer money. Why pay an attorney a $25,000 per month retainer, triple what the district was paying the former one? And throw in hourly billing costs on top of that?

Does that make sense? Not to mention some of the legal advice being handed down by Salinas, much of it, with which Lugo is in disagreement.

For example, during an interview last month, Lugo asked why the board majority had re-hired the school’s athletic director who had been firedfor alleged financia malfeasance while his grievance process against the district was still in place. He wasn’t working, but he was still getting paid. Why not let the grievance process play out, because according to Lugo, the district had enough evidence to support the AD’s firing.No matter, the new board majority, with the new attorney in place, re-hired the athletic director.

Then, last month, the district paid $85,000 to a former school district clerk, Petra Castillo, who had been firedby the superintendent for shredding school documents she had allegedly been told not to shred. She fileda lawsuit and a grievance against the district.

But according to Lugo, Donna ISD had been well within its rights to terminate her employment.

The board president, Albert Sandoval, however, said the board was acting upon the advice of the board attorney, Robert J. Salinas. In other words, said Sandoval, if the district hadn’t settled with Castillo for $85,000, it risked paying out more.

“And those grievances that we heard that night,” said Sandoval, "were all in place prior to May (of 2014, when he was elected to office),so we (the new board majority) basically inherited those grievances. Why it took so long for the administration to present them for us to hear them, I don’t understand. But I will tell you that the accusation of (her) shredding those documents was within the scope of her employment, and those were student records.”

With the issue of the attorney, Robert Salinas, who didn’t return a phone call for comment in this story, by the way, Lugo said several months ago during a discussion with this newspaper that he also has a problem with a former convicted felon serving as the district’s attorney.

Convicted felon?

“What does that say about the district, what does that teach our kids, when we have a convicted felon serving as our school attorney?” Lugo asked.

ATTORNEY CONVICTION

Strangely enough, Robert Salinas, former Hidalgo County District Attorney, pleaded guilty to laundering drug money in 1994. It was the same time that former Hidalgo County Sheriff Brig Marmolejo was facing his own trial for money laundering.

In a story published July 10, 1994 in the Brownsville Herald, then-Hidalgo County DA Rene Guerra said that Robert Salinas was “a good attorney, but that he mixed with the wrong crowd.”

So how did Salinas, a convicted felon who served 36 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to money laundering charges, ever regain his law license after filing a letter of resignation from the bar?

According to a story posted at Breitbart.com, Salinas asked to have his law license reinstated after serving his time and probationary period. Prior to 2012 (the law has since been changed), a lawyer convicted of a felony could regain their law license from the Texas Bar if they could prove that they had reclaimed their good moral character and had completed their sentence.

Ten years ago, after the Texas Bar granted his request for re-licensure, Robert J. Salinas once again hung his lawyer shingle outside his Donna law office

And now, he’s the school attorney for Donna ISD.

“It just isn’t right,” said Ernesto Lugo in an interview The Advance conducted with him several months ago.

This week, after his arrest last Friday for allegedly bribing the Donna ISD police chief, Lugo said he’s not at liberty to grant media interviews.

To add more fuel to the Donna mix, earlier this year, a handful of Donna ISD teachers and coaches, including the superintendent’s new son-in-law, have been arrested and charged with improper sexual relations with under-aged female teen students attending Donna schools. Those problems have already led to several federal lawsuits being filedagainst the district for failing to protect its students.

POLICE CHIEF ROY PADILLA

Meanwhile, Donna ISD made more news last week when two arrests were announced: that of Superintendent Reyna and Board Trustee Ernesto Lugo.

According to the criminal complaint, the Donna ISD police department was investigating the superintendent for alleged insurance fraud. Apparently another district employee was under investigation and had fingeredthe superintendent, accusing him of doing the same thing. Which is apparently what launched the investigation against Reyna. Two Donna ISD investigators were looking into the matter.

According to the criminal complaint, Padilla called the two investigators in mid-April 2015 and said that he had info that the superintendent was going to firethem so that the investigation into his own alleged insurance fraud would end. Padilla then told the two investigators that he had met with Lugo and discovered that not only were the two investigators’ jobs in jeopardy, but his own was as well.

Job jeopardy for Padilla was nothing new. He had, in fact, been firedby Donna ISD in 2014 for allegedly failing to follow proper protocol with regard to budget matters. He disagreed, hired an attorney, and then after the November 2014 election was over, he was re-hired by the district and paid $55,000 for his troubles.

Still, he told the two investigators, all their jobs were in jeopardy if the investigation into Reyna’s alleged insurance fraud continued. But thankfully, he had met with Trustee Ernesto Lugo, according to the criminal complaint, and everything had been worked out. The two investigators weren’t going to be fired and to top it off, Lugo had agreed that the district would pay Roy Padilla the gas mileage he claimed he had coming.

According to the criminal complaint, the gas mileage was the bribe paid to him to make the investigation against Reyna disappear.

Padilla then took the criminal complaint to the Donna Municipal Judge Javier Garza, but he wouldn’t sign an arrest warrants for Reyna and Lugo. So he took it to Hidalgo County JP Bobby Contreras who agreed to sign them.

Asked why, Contreras said last week that he looked at the evidence against Reyna and Padilla and judged it sufficien to sign the arrest warrants. 

So, last week, both men were arrested and then handed personal recognizance bonds to get out of jail.

In the meantime, Padilla locked Reyna’s office,so he couldn’t get back into his officethis week. He was told that he’d be arrested if he stepped foot back on school property again.

Monday, the 275th District Court issued a temporary restraining order, preventing the Donna ISD Board of Trustees from meeting Monday night to discuss the superintendent’s fate. But the crime tape is still across Reyna’s officedoor. And he’s been told that he still can’t come on to school property.

So where do we go from here?

The Advance did a quick interview with Donna ISD Police Chief Roy Padilla Monday night to try and get a few answers to some things:

Ernesto Lugo and the superintendent aren’t talking, but someone close to the case, a confidentialsource, shall we say, says, you know what, Roy Padilla is running this school district like some kind of out-of-control police department in a small town. You were fred by the superintendent last year. You got a $55,000 settlement. You got your job back. And now you’re carrying out some sort of vendetta against him.

Padilla: “I don’t come back at nobody for anything. I don’t make up investigations, and it’s not because of personal reasons. It’s a job I’ve got to do and that’s it. You’re going to take a lot of heat.”

As police chief, did you have the authority to lock the superintendent out of his office 

Padilla: “It was done on my authority. I was going to run a search warrant there.”

When you met with Ernesto Lugo, who initiated the conversation about you getting mileage from the district added to your paycheck. Because according to one source close to the case, you two met fairly frequently for coffee and discussion.

Padilla: “It was me (I initiated the discussion about the mileage stipend). People always say well, it was entrapment, this and that, until people actually know the real story, the real reason how it came about. I didn't just say okay, well, pay me mileage and go ahead and do this. You know what I mean? It was a little negotiation.”

The same source I referenced earlier said this is all political. Your father, wife, sister, and brother all work for the district, your wife's brother just got hired by the district, who's dating one of the board members, just about a month ago. They're so entrenched in this district. It's obvious that that's how the Padilla family survives. What do you say to that?

Padilla: “That has nothing to do with it.”

Your critics say, look, this is a guy who doesn’t even have a high school diploma.

Padilla: “As far as the high school diploma, I tell everybody, my friends, the kids at school in my presentation, ‘Guys, I had it rough. I dropped out of high school in 10th grade to help my family work, but you know what? I didn't stop there. I continued. I was blessed. I love what I’ve done with my career. ”

Some people, this particular person, make the statement that you basically threw Lugo under the bus. You met with him a couple of times, had coffee and so forth and he always tried to mitigate the division between you and the board, because at different points even the board didn't agree, so he would always try to come to some resolution to try to work things out, so basically you used him in the sense to get back at the superintendent.

Padilla: No, not at all. There was a purpose why Lugo wanted to talk to me, and it just happened, he just happened to be the mediator.”

What do you say when some people say, look, putting yellow crime scene tape around the superintendent’s office…eally…isn’t that overkill?

Padilla: “The thing is, if you tear down the tape, that’s against the law. You get arrested. If the superintendent enters his office, he violates the la.”

People have said, go ahead and do your investigation, and in the meantime, let the superintendent run this district. Present your findingsto the appropriate authorities and then move forward. Don't just arrest this guy (or these guys if you count Lugo) and make all these allegations and all these assumptions, and start making decisions on who's going to change the door locks, who has to issue a letter from the HR department to suspend this guy, etc. etc. Who's doing all that? There's no control in the district right now.

Padilla: “Yeah, it's a mess. The thing is, as the chief of police, somebody who is in charge of 30 police officers,60 security officers,I have to look out for their well-being, and when I findout that some of my investigators are going to be suspended, terminated for investigating the superintendent, I have to take action. Bottom line, that's what I did. Did it work? Of course it worked.”

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