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Why Is Public Corruption So Common in South Texas?

In Crystal City, nearly every public official is facing criminal charges. But it’s not the region’s only place plagued by corruption.

(Flickr/Jimmy Wayne)
Lots of cities have faced corruption scandals. Few have had nearly their entire leadership decapitated by them.  

In February, an FBI raid in Crystal City, Texas, led to the indictments of the mayor, the city manager and three current or former members of the city council as part of a conspiracy and bribery scheme. Another city council member had previously been indicted on human trafficking charges. That left just a single city council member who was not facing criminal charges. “It seems as though no one is running the city right now,” says Maria Dora Paloma, a retired municipal judge. “The whole community’s upset.”

City officials have been accused of taking bribes, helping to promote an illegal gambling operation and offering an outsized salary to an inexperienced city attorney in exchange for his acquiescence with the bribery scheme. Eventually that attorney, William Jonas, who had no previous municipal experience, was also hired as the city manager.

Not all the indicted officials have stepped down. A week after the raid, Mayor Ricardo Lopez was taken away from a city council meeting in handcuffs and charged with disorderly conduct because of a fight about whether those officials who hadn’t stepped down would be subject to a recall election.

All of this has left the city barely able to function. When the council met recently to discuss a starting date and salary for an interim city manager, there weren’t enough members left to form a quorum.

Crystal City, which is home to about 7,500 residents, fashions itself as “the Spinach Capital of the World.” A statue of Popeye stands outside city hall. While Crystal City may seem like an outlier in terms of its legal problems, the sad reality is that corruption charges are pretty common in South Texas, at all levels of government. The two federal judicial districts that cover the region rank near the top nationwide in terms of sheer number of public corruption cases. Just to cite one ongoing example, four county commissioners in Maverick County have been charged in a case involving bribery and contract fixing. “We’ve really turned our focus to public corruption,” Christopher Combs, an FBI special agent in charge, told the San Antonio Express-News. “It’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Why are there so many fish to go after? There are a lot of theories, but no single explanation. For one thing, given the drug trade, corruption is a problem on both sides of the border with Mexico. South Texas also remains overwhelmingly Democratic: One-party areas are often prone to problems since there’s no one from the opposing party with any authority to blow the whistle. Furthermore, many communities in South Texas are poor. People at city hall with control over sizable contracts become “the beautiful person at the ball” that everybody, from contractors to gambling operators, wants to dance with, says former FBI agent Fred Olivares.

Finally, there’s just the sheer size of the area. Crystal City is about 115 miles southwest of San Antonio. Even lead-footing it, an FBI agent will have to decide it’s worth three hours of driving round-trip to check out a tip. And there are a lot of similar outlying cities in South Texas. “It’s pretty much outside our radar, unless somebody comes to us,” Olivares says.

There’s one thing Crystal City does have going for it. On May 7, the indicted officials who haven’t stepped down will face recall elections. Regular municipal elections will be held the same day. The city has the chance to start over with a new mayor and a fresh slate of city council members. Under Texas law, they’ll be able to start work a week after winning office. “It will be quite a job to face,” says Paloma, “because we don’t know what condition the city really is in.” 

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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