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Former Sheriff Treviño: 'I plead guilty, your honor'

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Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 8:15 am

McALLEN — Five words sealed the fate of the man who used to be the highest law enforcement official in Hidalgo County.

“I plead guilty, your honor,” former Sheriff Lupe Treviño said Monday morning when asked for his plea on the charge of money laundering.

Wearing a black suit with a white shirt and red tie, Treviño spoke loudly and clearly when responding to the questions made by U.S. District Court Judge Micaela Alvarez.

With a hand in his pocket and a slight tilt to his head, Treviño agreed to the facts of the case that were read by Assistant U.S. Attorney James Sturgis, who said that from June 1, 2011, to December 2012, Treviño conspired to conduct financial transactions involving the proceeds of illegal activity.

The prosecutor said that during that time, Weslaco drug trafficker Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez gave cash to former sheriff’s Cmdr. Jose Padilla, who would then give the money to Treviño as a campaign donation. The money was then deposited into campaign accounts that were modified to conceal the money, Sturgis said.

While the amount of money laundered was not specified, Sturgis mentioned during the hearing that it was between $70,000 and $120,000.

Treviño declined to make any comment to The Monitor on Monday.

As part of the hearing, Alvarez reminded Treviño that although he has a right to have evidence presented before a grand jury — who could decide whether to indict him, and if they did, he’d have the right to a trial — he was waiving those rights by pleading to the criminal information presented by the prosecution, who accused him of money laundering.

“I understand your honor,” Treviño said.

Prior to accepting the guilty plea, Alvarez reminded Treviño that the possible range of punishment for money laundering could lead to a maximum 20-year sentence.

The former sheriff agreed that even though he could face that much prison time, he still wanted to plead guilty.

In the back of the courtroom, two agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, two agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and a Texas Ranger watched intently as the case they spent months building came to fruition. After the hearing, the agents declined to comment on the case, deferring comment to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

 

SENTENCE

Soon after Treviño resigned from his position March 28, wild speculation began to spread about a deal that he had made with prosecutors in order to get a lesser sentence.

Court records show that there was a plea agreement between Treviño and prosecutors in which they recommend a two-point deduction to be used during the sentencing guidelines.

The federal court system uses a series of guidelines in which offenses are assigned a number value, and specific actions or roles in a crime can increase or decrease the number value. That final number corresponds with a sentencing range that a judge can use.

While prosecutors can make recommendations, ultimately the one who determines the sentence in the judge who can choose to follow or not follow the recommendations, Sturgis said.

 

BOND

Soon after the hearing, U.S. Deputy Marshals took Treviño before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Ormsby for a bond hearing so the former lawman could be released pending his July 17 sentencing hearing.

While considering on whether to set bond, Ormsby said he was taking into account that Treviño was convicted of a crime while in a position of public trust and that his actions had an effect on the community. On the other hand, Treviño is almost a lifelong resident of the area, has deep roots in the community, has a clean record apart from this case and is not considered a flight risk.

Ormsby set bond for Treviño at $30,000 unsecured meaning he didn’t have to make a deposit with the court and his signature is good enough, however if he fails to meet the requirements or misses a court hearing he would have to pay the amount of the bond.

 

CAMPAIGN FINANCES

Treviño’s plea comes just 17 days after he stepped down from office and three days after his former chief of staff at the Sheriff’s Office, Maria Patricia Medina, pleaded guilty to having knowledge of a felony and not reporting it. According to information discussed during her hearing, Medina as campaign treasurer knew about the money that was put into campaign bank accounts under Treviño’s control and would change the campaign reports to hide it.

While Treviño declined to speak to The Monitor on Monday, in previous interviews he had said that he never met Gonzalez and that when he learned of the campaign donation he asked District Attorney Rene Guerra for advice. According to Treviño, Guerra told him to deposit the money in a campaign bank account and write Gonzalez a check to create a paper trail to show that the money had been received and returned.

“I advised him,” Guerra said. “As the district attorney for the county, I give opinion and advice on legal issues, and I advised him. I don’t know the federal government’s case or what evidence they are looking at or what statutes they are using for this.”

The district attorney expressed sadness at the conviction of a longtime ally and friend.

“He worked for me for many years,” Guerra said. “When he became sheriff, we worked together like sheriff and DA in matters relating to cases.”

The DA said that he and Treviño had been friends for a long time and supported each other in the political arena.

“I’m saddened that he went to court this morning,” Guerra said. “I’m saddened for him and I’m saddened for his family.”

 

PANAMA UNIT

It was not immediately clear whether Treviño’s plea brings to an end a series of federal probes into his department that became public for the first time in January 2013, when a federal grand jury handed up a six-count indictment against members of a now-defunct drug interdiction task force known as the Panama Unit.

Members of that unit included the former sheriff’s son, Jonathan Treviño. Eventually nine lawmen and three drug traffickers would be charged in a wide-ranging conspiracy to steal, possess and distribute marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines from January 2009 to December 2012, the month after Treviño won re-election. The unit would conduct drug raids and rather than turn in the seized narcotics the drugs would be sold to another drug trafficker who would sell them on the side.

Throughout the Panama Unit investigation, Treviño maintained that he knew nothing about the actions of rogue members of his agency, comparing himself to a person whose spouse was cheating on him – and saying he was the last to know about the criminal actions.

Only last Friday, when Medina quietly pleaded guilty to withholding information about a crime, did federal officials make publicly clear for the first time that Treviño himself was the target of a criminal investigation.

 

LEGACY

During his time in office, Treviño was quoted numerous times about his efforts to make the Sheriff’s Office an elite law enforcement agency in Texas. Since taking the helm of the agency in 2005, he unveiled a series of programs aimed at increasing the agency’s professionalism, decreasing crime and increasing community involvement.

“It is disheartening to know that a man’s entire law enforcement career — everything positive that he accomplished — is wiped away with a plea of guilty,” Sheriff Eddie Guerra said Monday afternoon in a prepared statement that touched on the loss of trust that the agency has suffered.

“I can tell you that your sheriff’s office is staffed with hardworking, honest men and women that have been battling to regain the dignity they once had,” Guerra said.

iortiz@themonitor.com

--

TREVIÑO TIMELINE

August 2012 — Federal agents start investigating the Panama Unit, a corrupt anti-narcotics squad.

While technically a partnership between the Mission Police Department and Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office, the Panama Unit includes just one Mission cop: Investigator Jonathan Treviño, the sheriff's son.

Informants pay the Panama Unit and other corrupt lawmen to guard cocaine shipments during several sting operations.

Dec. 12, 2012 — During a sting operation, Jonathan Treviño finds GPS tracking devices hidden inside a cocaine shipment.

Dec. 13, 2012 — The FBI's Public Integrity Unit notifies the Mission Police Department they've arrested Jonathan Treviño and Investigator Alexis Espinoza, the son of Hidalgo police Chief Rudy Espinoza — himself a former Sheriff's Office captain.

Alexis Espinoza was assigned to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement task force.

Federal agents also arrested Deputy Gerardo Duran and Deputy Fabian Rodriguez. Both immediately resigned from the Sheriff's Office.

Three other Sheriff's Office lawmen also resign. Deputy Salvador Arguello, Deputy Eric Alcantar and Deputy Claudio Mata submitted letters of resignation.

Dec. 31, 2012 — Hidalgo County Crime Stoppers Coordinator James Phil "J.P." Flores retires from the Sheriff's Office.

Jan. 7, 2013 — Sheriff Treviño formally disbands the Panama Unit.

Jan. 9, 2013 — A grand jury hands up a six-count indictment against Jonathan Treviño, Alexis Espinoza, Fabian Rodriguez and Gerardo Duran.

March 1, 2013 — Deputy Jorge Garza resigns from the Sheriff's Office.

March 6, 2013 — A grand jury hands up a superseding indictment, which adds three drug traffickers and three additional lawmen.

The new indictment links all ten players together in a wide-ranging conspiracy to possess and distribute marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines from January 2009 to December 2012.

All members of the Panama Unit have now been indicted, except the squad's former supervisors: Lt. Roy Mendez and Sgt. Rudy Salinas, who replaced him just seven days before the Dec. 12 sting operation.

March 21, 2013 — Federal agents charge J.P. Flores with conspiracy to possess and distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine.

Flores cooperated with the drug traffickers involved in the Panama Unit conspiracy, according to the criminal complaint against him, and conducted traffic stops to steal drugs from rival smugglers.

March 28, 2013 — Federal agents charge former Deputy Jorge Garza with conspiracy to possess and distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana.

Garza also worked with the drug traffickers from the Panama Unit conspiracy to conduct fake traffic stops and guard drug shipments, according to the criminal complaint against him.

March 26, 2013 — Deputy Jerry Del Angel abruptly resigns from the Sheriff's Office, telling Chief of Staff Pat Medina he "was doing the right thing."

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents had visited the Sheriff's Office a week earlier and spoken with him, according to a Sheriff's Office memo dated June 28.

Del Angel was never charged with any crime.

May 29, 2013 — Five former lawmen plead guilty in the Panama Unit case.

Jonathan Treviño, Salvador Arguello, Claudio Mata, Eric Alcantar and Gerardo Duran plead guilty.

They remain free on bond awaiting sentencing.

May 30, 2013 — Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra says state prosecutors will drop 50 to 75 criminal cases linked to the Panama Unit.

“Their credibility went from absolute to zero,” Guerra said. “It impacts the criminal justice system, the faith in the badge.”

June 28, 2013 — Fabian Rodriguez pleads guilty.

A minor player, Alvaro Gilberto de Hoyos, also pleads guilty.

July 10, 2013 — Speaking at the Country Omelette restaurant, Sheriff Treviño says Dec. 12, 2012 — when federal agents arrested his son — was "my 9/11."

“On that day (9/11) it was said that America would never be the same,” Sheriff Treviño said. “After 12/12, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office will never be the same again, and neither will I.

July 11, 2013 — Flores, the former Hidalgo County Crime Stoppers coordinator, pleads guilty.

July 18, 2013 — Both remaining drug traffickers, Fernando Guerra Sr. and Fernando Guerra Jr., plead guilty in the Panama Unit case.

July 24, 2013 — Former Mission police Investigator Alexis Espinoza pleads guilty in the Panama Unit case.

July 30, 2013 — Trial begins for former Deputy Jorge Garza, the only lawman who went to trial in the Panama Unit case.

Aug. 1, 2013 — Sheriff's Office Cmdr. Jose Padilla pleads the Fifth Amendment and declines to testify in Jorge Garza's trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Sturgis had previously met with Padilla and offered him a plea deal, according to a notice filed with the court. Padilla declined and Sturgis indicated the U.S. Attorney's Office would seek an indictment against him.

Padilla supervised the Special Services Bureau and also played an integral role in Sheriff Treviño's re-election campaign.

Aug. 2, 2013 — Sheriff Treviño takes the witness stand in Garza's trial, which becomes the talk of Hidalgo County.

Leaving the courthouse, Treviño wondered aloud: "Who's the one on trial?"

Aug. 2, 2013 — Federal agents arrest reputed Weslaco drug trafficker Tomas "El Gallo" Gonzalez.

Cmdr. Padilla had hand-delivered cash campaign donations from Gonzalez, according to Sheriff Treviño, but the campaign promptly returned the money. Gonzalez also bought signs promoting the sheriff's re-election campaign.

The signs still sit outside Gonzalez's home near Weslaco.

Aug. 6, 2013 — A jury convicts Jorge Garza. He's remanded to federal custody.

All lawmen and drug traffickers have now pleaded guilty or been convicted in the Panama Unit scandal.

Dec. 24, 2013 — Federal prosecutors unseal an indictment against Cmdr. Padilla, linking him to the "El Gallo" drug trafficking network.

The indictment charged Padilla with money laundering and drug trafficking.

Dec. 26, 2013 — Sheriff Treviño fires Cmdr. Padilla.

Dec. 27, 2013 — Cmdr. Padilla pleads not guilty.

March 10, 2014 — Texas Rangers and federal agents execute a search warrant at the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office and remove a computer.

March 25, 2014 — Sheriff's Office Chief of Staff Pat Medina abruptly resigns for "personal reasons."

Medina also served as Treviño's campaign treasurer.

March 28, 2014 — Sheriff Treviño resigns, saying both internal and external pressure started building on Dec. 12, 2012, when the Panama Unit scandal broke.

April 2, 2014 — The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court appoints Precinct 4 Constable Eddie Guerra to replace Sheriff Treviño.

April 11, 2014 — Pat Medina pleads guilty to what's called "misprison of a felony" for knowing Sheriff Treviño laundered drug money and not reporting him. Prosecutors typically levy the seldom-used charge against public servants who have an obligation to report anyone who commits a felony, but don't report the wrongdoing.

April 14, 2014 — Sheriff Treviño pleads guilty to knowingly participating in a conspiracy to launder drug money. The federal felony is punishable by a maximum 20 years in prison.

August 2012 — Federal agents start investigating the Panama Unit, a corrupt anti-narcotics squad.

While technically a partnership between the Mission Police Department and Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office, the Panama Unit includes just one Mission cop: Investigator Jonathan Treviño, the sheriff's son.

Informants pay the Panama Unit and other corrupt lawmen to guard cocaine shipments during several sting operations.

Dec. 12, 2012 — During a sting operation, Jonathan Treviño finds GPS tracking devices hidden inside a cocaine shipment.

Dec. 13, 2012 — The FBI's Public Integrity Unit notifies the Mission Police Department they've arrested Jonathan Treviño and Investigator Alexis Espinoza, the son of Hidalgo police Chief Rudy Espinoza — himself a former Sheriff's Office captain.

Alexis Espinoza was assigned to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement task force.

Federal agents also arrested Deputy Gerardo Duran and Deputy Fabian Rodriguez. Both immediately resigned from the Sheriff's Office.

Three other Sheriff's Office lawmen also resign. Deputy Salvador Arguello, Deputy Eric Alcantar and Deputy Claudio Mata submitted letters of resignation.

Dec. 31, 2012 — Hidalgo County Crime Stoppers Coordinator James Phil "J.P." Flores retires from the Sheriff's Office.

Jan. 7, 2013 — Sheriff Treviño formally disbands the Panama Unit.

Jan. 9, 2013 — A grand jury hands up a six-count indictment against Jonathan Treviño, Alexis Espinoza, Fabian Rodriguez and Gerardo Duran.

March 1, 2013 — Deputy Jorge Garza resigns from the Sheriff's Office.

March 6, 2013 — A grand jury hands up a superseding indictment, which adds three drug traffickers and three additional lawmen.

The new indictment links all ten players together in a wide-ranging conspiracy to possess and distribute marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines from January 2009 to December 2012.

All members of the Panama Unit have now been indicted, except the squad's former supervisors: Lt. Roy Mendez and Sgt. Rudy Salinas, who replaced him just seven days before the Dec. 12 sting operation.

March 21, 2013 — Federal agents charge J.P. Flores with conspiracy to possess and distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine.

Flores cooperated with the drug traffickers involved in the Panama Unit conspiracy, according to the criminal complaint against him, and conducted traffic stops to steal drugs from rival smugglers.

March 28, 2013 — Federal agents charge former Deputy Jorge Garza with conspiracy to possess and distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana.

Garza also worked with the drug traffickers from the Panama Unit conspiracy to conduct fake traffic stops and guard drug shipments, according to the criminal complaint against him.

March 26, 2013 — Deputy Jerry Del Angel abruptly resigns from the Sheriff's Office, telling Chief of Staff Pat Medina he "was doing the right thing."

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents had visited the Sheriff's Office a week earlier and spoken with him, according to a Sheriff's Office memo dated June 28.

Del Angel was never charged with any crime.

May 29, 2013 — Five former lawmen plead guilty in the Panama Unit case.

Jonathan Treviño, Salvador Arguello, Claudio Mata, Eric Alcantar and Gerardo Duran plead guilty.

They remain free on bond awaiting sentencing.

May 30, 2013 — Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra says state prosecutors will drop 50 to 75 criminal cases linked to the Panama Unit.

“Their credibility went from absolute to zero,” Guerra said. “It impacts the criminal justice system, the faith in the badge.”

June 28, 2013 — Fabian Rodriguez pleads guilty.

A minor player, Alvaro Gilberto de Hoyos, also pleads guilty.

July 10, 2013 — Speaking at the Country Omelette restaurant, Sheriff Treviño says Dec. 12, 2012 — when federal agents arrested his son — was "my 9/11."

“On that day (9/11) it was said that America would never be the same,” Sheriff Treviño said. “After 12/12, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office will never be the same again, and neither will I.

July 11, 2013 — Flores, the former Hidalgo County Crime Stoppers coordinator, pleads guilty.

July 18, 2013 — Both remaining drug traffickers, Fernando Guerra Sr. and Fernando Guerra Jr., plead guilty in the Panama Unit case.

July 24, 2013 — Former Mission police Investigator Alexis Espinoza pleads guilty in the Panama Unit case.

July 30, 2013 — Trial begins for former Deputy Jorge Garza, the only lawman who went to trial in the Panama Unit case.

Aug. 1, 2013 — Sheriff's Office Cmdr. Jose Padilla pleads the Fifth Amendment and declines to testify in Jorge Garza's trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Sturgis had previously met with Padilla and offered him a plea deal, according to a notice filed with the court. Padilla declined and Sturgis indicated the U.S. Attorney's Office would seek an indictment against him.

Padilla supervised the Special Services Bureau and also played an integral role in Sheriff Treviño's re-election campaign.

Aug. 2, 2013 — Sheriff Treviño takes the witness stand in Garza's trial, which becomes the talk of Hidalgo County.

Leaving the courthouse, Treviño wondered aloud: "Who's the one on trial?"

Aug. 2, 2013 — Federal agents arrest reputed Weslaco drug trafficker Tomas "El Gallo" Gonzalez.

Cmdr. Padilla had hand-delivered cash campaign donations from Gonzalez, according to Sheriff Treviño, but the campaign promptly returned the money. Gonzalez also bought signs promoting the sheriff's re-election campaign.

The signs still sit outside Gonzalez's home near Weslaco.

Aug. 6, 2013 — A jury convicts Jorge Garza. He's remanded to federal custody.

All lawmen and drug traffickers have now pleaded guilty or been convicted in the Panama Unit scandal.

Dec. 24, 2013 — Federal prosecutors unseal an indictment against Cmdr. Padilla, linking him to the "El Gallo" drug trafficking network.

The indictment charged Padilla with money laundering and drug trafficking.

Dec. 26, 2013 — Sheriff Treviño fires Cmdr. Padilla.

Dec. 27, 2013 — Cmdr. Padilla pleads not guilty.

March 10, 2014 — Texas Rangers and federal agents execute a search warrant at the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office and remove a computer.

March 25, 2014 — Sheriff's Office Chief of Staff Pat Medina abruptly resigns for "personal reasons."

Medina also served as Treviño's campaign treasurer.

March 28, 2014 — Sheriff Treviño resigns, saying both internal and external pressure started building on Dec. 12, 2012, when the Panama Unit scandal broke.

April 2, 2014 — The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court appoints Precinct 4 Constable Eddie Guerra to replace Sheriff Treviño.

April 11, 2014 — Pat Medina pleads guilty to what's called "misprison of a felony" for knowing Sheriff Treviño laundered drug money and not reporting him. Prosecutors typically levy the seldom-used charge against public servants who have an obligation to report anyone who commits a felony, but don't report the wrongdoing.

April 14, 2014 — Sheriff Treviño pleads guilty to knowingly participating in a conspiracy to launder drug money. The federal felony is punishable by a maximum 20 years in prison.

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