PROGRESO, Texas (AP) — The mayor of a South Texas border city, his younger brother and their father were charged Wednesday with taking bribes and kickbacks from companies that provided services to the city and its schools, federal authorities said.
Progreso Mayor Omar Leonel Vela, his brother Michael Vela and father Jose Guadalupe Vela Jr., were arrested Wednesday and charged with conspiracy, mail fraud, violations of the Travel Act, theft and bribery, United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson said in a news release.
The man pulling the strings, according to the indictment, was 64-year-old Jose Vela, the maintenance and transportation supervisor for the Progreso Independent School District. Michael Vela, 29, chairs the school board. Prosecutors say Jose Vela used his sons to steer city and school district contracts to companies that gave him kickbacks, creating a "pay to play" system that began in 2004, according to the indictment.
They face court appearances Thursday in McAllen, about 20 miles northwest of Progreso, a city of about 5,500 people.
City attorney Javier Villalobos said Wednesday he did not have details of the allegations against the Velas.
"I was aware that there was some investigation going on with the school district," he said. "But I didn't believe or know it had anything to do with the mayor."
Villalobos said the city would continue to operate without Omar Leonel Vela, the longtime mayor, at the helm. As city attorney, Villalobos said he would not be representing the 35-year-old mayor in his criminal case.
The indictment alleges that Jose Vela controlled the school district and board through a system of reward and retaliation. He recruited people to run for seats on the board and punished those who voted against his wishes. He also distributed bribe money to board trustees who voted as instructed. His influence extended to the city as well, where he dictated who was awarded contracts for public projects, the indictment said.
Progreso Independent School District Superintendent Fernando Castillo said he had known for some time that an investigation was underway because authorities had requested documents from the district.
"Even though you're aware the authorities are asking for documents, you don't know what they're going to do or when they're going to do it," Castillo said.
Wednesday's arrests came on the second day of school.
He said Jose Vela had been a district supervisor for at least seven years and that Michael Vela had been on the school board for three or four years, and president for the past two.
Castillo said his priority is reassuring parents that the schools are safe and running smoothly.