EDINBURG — The director of the county’s adult probation department confirmed Thursday that the San Juan mayor, who was employed as a probation officer, is no longer employed at the office as of this past Monday.
Arnold Patrick, the director of the Hidalgo County Adult Probation office, declined to go into detail about Mario Garza’s separation from the department, specifically whether or not Garza was terminated or resigned Friday, the same day the sheriff’s office announced an investigation into alleged bribery and theft from some probation officers.
So far the investigation into alleged bribes taken by probation officers in exchange for favors which was initiated by Patrick after a private citizen approached him about possible indiscretions in his office, has yielded one arrest. Carlos Delafuente, 34, surrendered to authorities Tuesday.
Delafuente was formally arraigned by a justice of the peace Tuesday afternoon on one count of abuse of official capacity — a state jail felony punishable with up to two years in county jail.
The former probation officer, who worked for more than 10 years at the probation office, is accused of taking at least $6,000 in cash from probationers in exchange for early termination of their probation, or other favors related to their case since at least 2009, according to the criminal complaint filed against Delafuente.
The Monitor has been unsuccessful in its attempts to speak to Garza since last Friday when his name was mentioned along with Delafuente’s in connection with the investigation.
On Wednesday night, after a special city meeting, Garza spoke with KGBT-TV, who reported that Garza had indeed quit Friday after 15 years as a probation officer because he was “burned out,” but did not give additional details, acknowledging that the timing was “so, so wrong,” but claimed he did not take any bribes at any point.
Unlike Delafuente, Garza told KGBT he did not submit a resignation letter on Friday but instead just “walked out” and had no plans of returning.
Patrick said the internal investigation conducted by his staff did not reveal anything linking Garza to the current bribery and theft investigation.
“As far as I know, there is no direct link to (Delafuente) and Mr. Garza, they were separate issues,” Patrick said.
Patrick said Garza was made aware of violations of department policy, which are not related to the sheriff’s investigation, but declined to go into details.
Despite the bombshell revelation that some of his officers may have been taking bribes, Patrick said he and his staff immediately conducted an inquiry into the allegations against Delafuente, contacted the DA’s office, which then initiated communication with the sheriff’s office. The current investigation began in earnest on May 17, a little over a week after Patrick and his staff were made aware of the allegations against Delafuente.
“Obviously it’s not pretty. I have at least one problem, if not two, (but) we looked into (the allegations made against Delafuente) and found some issues with multiple cases,” Patrick said. “We went to the (DA’s office) and (First Assistant Criminal District Attorney) Juan Villescas who took it very seriously. Then the sheriff’s investigators talked to us — met with us and looked at the information we gathered.”
The potential second problem Patrick is referring to is a second probation officer, who has not been charged in connection with the investigation, but resigned Monday after learning of the internal inquiry conducted by Patrick’s staff.
Patrick declined to discuss the monetary figure disclosed in the criminal complaint against Delafuente, which alleged the former probation officer took more than $6,330 beginning in 2009 until May of this year.
“We didn’t uncover anywhere near the $6,000 (figure),” Patrick said. “The sheriff’s investigators have done a fantastic job of looking into it. They were very impressed by the job (my staff) did in investigating it and asked us to continue to do that and pass (the information) on.”
Patrick cautioned against connecting Garza’s exit from his office after 15 years on the job — and on the same day the sheriff’s office made public the investigation into bribes and theft.
“There are 240 employees that work here,” Patrick said. “I wouldn’t draw conclusions just based on the timing.”
The director said he understands the frustration from the public, and from his other probation officers, the ones who are honest, and hardworking public servants.
“(That was) my biggest fear from the very get-go. This entire department has worked extremely hard, we’ve made changes, we’re considered by people across the state and nationally as (a department) doing things the right way, and we’ve worked hard to create that system and we’re proud of it,” Patrick said. “We’ve had the cooperation of our judges, the DA, and our probation officers. My fear has always been a couple of bad apples have given the county, and the people of the county, a picture of this department that is completely false.”
Delafuente’s arrest Tuesday upset many current probation officers, who expressed their anger at his alleged actions, which just further reinforces a negative perception of public servants in Hidalgo County.
“I understand why they’re upset,” Patrick said. “Because they work really hard — since I’ve been here we’ve asked them to do more, work harder, make better decisions, and change how we look at things within the department — we do a great job.”