Judge indicates possible reinstatement of embattled Rio Grande City trustee

A judge indicated Wednesday he might allow Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia to retake his position on the board after he was temporarily suspended in November.

Visiting state District Judge David Stith said the inability to hold jury trials in Starr County until September, at the earliest, was a problem with respect to Garcia’s due process rights.

“Quite honestly to me, in my mind, that means that this case would not be able to go to jury trial until maybe the November election is over or sometime around that and that creates a problem,” Stith said. “The problem in this case is the delay.”

Garcia’s suspension and possible permanent removal from the school stem from a petition filed by a former school district employee, Ricardo Lopez.

Lopez filed the petition to remove Garcia in May 2019 and in November, Stith granted a motion to have Garcia temporarily removed from the board pending a jury trial.

Lopez, himself, was arrested in November 2017 for allegedly trying to bribe a judge who, at the time, was presiding over a murder case but in the petition, he alleged that Garcia orchestrated the attempted bribery.

Further, Lopez alleges that Garcia, an attorney, maneuvered his way onto the legal defense team for the defendant in the case by allegedly offering a school employee a promotion and/or withholding pay raises so that they would solicit the family of the defendant on his behalf.

Garcia has denied the allegations and has never been charged.

Complicating the matter is that Garcia is also a defendant in a federal case revolving around a bribery scheme in Weslaco. He is charged with wire fraud and money laundering in connection with the alleged scheme to help engineering contractors funnel more than $4 million in bribes to Weslaco city commissioners. Federal government prosecutors allege that, in exchange, these commissioners voted in favor of awarding contracts to those companies for the overhaul of the Weslaco’s water treatment facilities.

Garcia pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

Stith said the goal from the outset was to either await the outcome of the federal case or, if that wasn’t resolved fast enough, for Garcia to have his day in court on the removal issue.

He added that when he granted the motion to temporarily remove Garcia, he did that as a short-term stopgap and that it was only a jury’s ability to decide whether his removal should be permanent or not.

However, because of COVID-19 and the precautionary measures taken to prevent the spread of it, there have been multiple delays and Stith said there wasn’t a way for them to plan for a jury trial in this case.

“So what that’s created is, it’s created that my temporary removal has become a permanent removal and that is compounded by the fact that, my understanding, is that there’s going to be an election for this position in November,” Stith said referring to the school board elections for which Garcia’s position will be on the ballot.

“I believe due process is going to require me allowing the school board member to retake his position pending the ability to have a jury trial on the issue,” Stith added. “That’s what my mindset was.”

Stith said he wanted to give both sides — the attorneys for the state and Garcia’s defense attorneys — the opportunity to make their arguments during Wednesday’s hearing but Starr County Attorney Victor Canales was not present because he was feeling under the weather, according to Assistant County Attorney Jennifer Vasquez who was filling in for Canales.

Vasquez requested a continuance of the hearing on Canales’ behalf, requesting that it could be reset to a time when Canales, who has handled the case from the beginning, could attend.

Hilda Gonzalez Garza, one of the attorneys for Garcia, argued against another delay in the case, noting that Garcia had been off the school board for 205 days.

Stith granted the continuance and scheduled the next hearing for Friday, June 26.