McALLEN — He was just a cook at Stilettos Cabaret, a gentleman’s bar here, when Armando Jimenez met Juan Jose “JJ” Garza, the former executive director of the La Joya Housing Authority.
Jimenez wanted to try something other than cooking to make a living, especially to help his daughter financially with school, so when Garza offered to work together in construction, he took it.
This led to Jimenez and Garza now having to serve time in prison.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa sentenced Garza and Jimenez to 37 months and 18 months in prison, respectively, for conspiracy to commit wire fraud through a bid-rigging scheme. Both must surrender to the U.S. Marshals by 2 p.m. June 1.
Government prosecutors alleged Garza recruited Jimenez to submit fake, high-cost bids to the Alamo and Donna Housing Authorities between July 2012 and into March 2013 to ensure that Jimenez, as the low-cost bidder through his company Jimenez Construction, would be awarded the contract.
Jimenez would then hire Garza as a subcontractor.
The two men pleaded guilty to the charges in May 2017, although Garza appeared to do so reluctantly. At least, that’s how it seemed to Hinojosa upon receiving a letter from Garza after the plea agreement, and prior to Wednesday’s sentencing hearing.
In his six-page, single-spaced letter to the judge, Garza detailed his political history, including feelings of being targeted by his adversaries. However, Hinojosa said Wednesday that he didn’t understand the point of it.
“Where was I supposed to go from that?” Hinojosa said. “(It) definitely tells me that you don’t think you’re guilty.”
Garza explained he was just trying to provide some history, but when prompted by the judge to state what exactly he was admitting to, Garza seemed hesitant to accept guilt.
Garza admitted he had submitted bids to the housing authorities for jobs he wasn’t really interested in but that he wasn’t certain, only “hoping,” that the contracts would then be awarded to Jimenez.
“Basically, you’re telling me that what you said at the guilty pleading was not true,” the judge said. “I’m not taking a guilty plea from someone who’s not willing to admit the facts.”
His attorney, Ricardo Flores, who took over for Garza’s previous attorney Roberto Yzaguirre, who withdrew as Garza’s counsel after the guilty plea in May 2017, explained his client was nervous, which could describe his demeanor as he sat in the gallery before his sentencing, often leaning forward and fidgeting with his hands.
But when asked if he was absolutely certain he wanted to proceed with his guilty plea, Garza replied that he was.
While he too admitted culpability, Jimenez was just a “glorified gofer,” as his defense attorney, Marcos De Luna, put it, arguing the extent of Jimenez’s role in the construction company was lending his name to it.
“They told me we were going to bid for this work and we’ll see what happens,” Jimenez told the judge.
In his client’s defense, De Luna said Garza took advantage of Jimenez.
“They took advantage of a naive person,” De Luna said. “They took advantage of a cook at Stilettos.”
De Luna said his client, who is a permanent alien resident, came forward with information about the scheme in the face of threats — and even with the understanding he will be deported as a result of his guilty plea.
After handing down the sentence, Hinojosa said he believed his role in it was minimal.
“I realize you got caught in the situation,” the judge said to Jimenez. “I’m sorry that you found yourself in this situation.”
Such sentiments were in stark contrast to his remarks regarding Garza’s involvement and position in the community.
Garza, who was also a former member of the La Joya school district board of trustees, was terminated from the housing authority in December 2016 and later resigned from the school board in April 2017.
Hinojosa said the case was of significance because Garza violated public trust.
“The housing authorities are created to help people who need help,” Hinojosa said. “To then just break that trust that we have…is basically a slap in the face.”