EDINBURG – Former Hidalgo County Commissioner Sylvia Handy has decided not to fight the state-level, public corruption charges against her stemming from a phantom employee program she ran while in office in the early 2000s.
During a re-arraignment hearing Thursday morning before 139th state District Judge Bobby Flores, Handy entered a plea of no contest to an eight-count indictment accusing her of theft of more than $200,000, engaging in organized criminal activity and securing documents by deception.
Handy, who was the first woman to serve on the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court after her election in 1996, is accused of using a series of schemes to benefit financially and in-kind for more than seven years. She was initially arrested by the FBI in 2009, and she initially pleaded guilty to several federal counts of harboring immigrants who were in the country illegally. She was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
The scheme described by prosecutors involved Handy having immigrants who were in the country illegally obtain false documents so they could be hired as Precinct 1 employees and perform tasks like baby-sitting and cleaning her house.
During the hearing, Maria Hernandez testified that Handy had lent her family money to get a false Social Security card and birth certificate and then went to work at her county office and as her maid.
Hernandez’s sister Yadira Landa testified that she worked for Handy as a baby-sitter even though she was in the country illegally and would be paid by a check made out to a phantom employee in the county.
Rosario Moreno, a former friend of Handy, testified that Handy once told her that Handy needed money and was thinking of putting someone’s daughter on the payroll so that Handy could collect the money. Moreno testified that she offered her daughter.
“She was my friend, I loved her. I stupidly offered my daughter,” Moreno said, adding that her daughter was listed as a county employee for some time even though she didn’t work for Handy at the time.
Based on the number of employees who were hired by Handy in an incorrect fashion, the county was bilked of more than $500,000, said County Auditor Raymundo Eufracio.
Flores set Handy’s sentencing for July 18 to give his staff enough time to prepare a pre-sentencing investigation that would address the real amount taken from the county. According to Flores, the phantom employees performed work for the county at some point so his staff would have to determine those amounts versus the total given by Eufracio so that Handy could be ordered to pay restitution.
Sheriff Lupe Treviño, whose public corruption unit worked with the FBI to take down Handy, said Thursday that no private citizen or public servant “is greater than the rule of law.”
“This is an example that public corruption in Hidalgo County is not business as usual,” Treviño said.
Ildefonso Ortiz covers courts and law enforcement for The Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (956) 683-4437 or on Twitter, @IldefonsoOrtiz.