A grand jury indicted a former employee of the Rio Grande City school district last week for attempting to bribe a judge, more than two years after his arrest for the alleged incident.
On Friday, the grand jury indicted Ricardo Lopez Jr. on a bribery charge following his November 2017 arrest which stemmed from an investigation by the Starr County Special Crimes Unit.
The SCU surveilled Lopez meeting with City Commissioner Hernan Garza, the brother of 381st District Judge Jose Luis Garza, in an attempt to give money to the judge through his brother so that the judge would lower the bond of a defendant in a murder trial.
Lopez, who worked in the district’s truancy office, was placed on administrative leave and, the next year, the school district opted to not renew his contract.
Then in May 2019, Lopez filed a petition to remove school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia from his position, alleging that Garcia orchestrated that bribery attempt.
A visiting judge appointed to preside over the removal proceedings granted the temporary removal of Garcia in November 2019 pending trial on those allegations. But because of limitations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the trial was delayed longer than anticipated so the judge allowed Garcia to return to the board in June.
During the time that Garcia was suspended, Lopez filed a lawsuit in federal court against the district, Garcia, and two other board members.
As basis for the lawsuit, Lopez claimed the board and the district violated his rights to freedom of expression and due process when they decided to not renew his contract.
He reiterated the claim that Garcia abused his position on the school board to pressure Lopez “by telling him that he could not advance any further within the school district without carrying out his particular personal requests and the requests of his political allies on the school board,” according to the complaint filed in federal court.
He added that during the 2016 school board elections, he was pressured to support the Kids’ Choice political slate on which Garcia and the other two defendants were running.
During a hearing on the case, Lopez’s attorney said the issue was whether the school district gave him proper notice of his non-renewal.
U.S. District Judge Randy Crane set tentative deadlines for next year.
The bribery case against Lopez is being prosecuted by the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
District Attorney Omar Escobar of the 229th Judicial District explained his office handed the case over to them because of the people involved.
“Because it involved a local judge, the district judge that we work with there, and because it also involved other persons that were being named there, we just felt that it was the right thing to give it to the AG’s office,” Escobar said.
If found guilty of bribery, a second degree felony, Lopez could face up to 20 years in prison, according to the state’s penal code, and a fine of up to $10,000.