Texas Mayor Omar Leonel Vela, 36 plead guilty to federal charges of bribery and conspiracy for his role in a corruption scheme that rocked the small, border-town in August of last year. Also involved in the scheme were his father Jose Guadalupe Vela, and his brother Michael Vela.
The three men were arrested in August 2013, and charged with conspiracy, violations of the Travel Act, mail fraud, theft, and bribery. Jose Vela worked for the Progreso Independent School District (PISD) as a transportation and maintenance supervisor, and Michael Vela was the PISD board president. The school district where these two men held high, notable positions annually receives over $1 million in federal funds from the United States Department of Education.
With Omar Vela as mayor and a government official, the three seized the opportunity to exploit their political and public positions and take control of the municipal government of the small, Texas town and the PISD Board of Trustees, to create a “pay-to-play” public contracting system fostered by bribe extractions and kickbacks from contractors and service providers.
From 2004-2013, Vela, and others obtained kickbacks, and solicited and extracted bribes from service providers in order to grant PISD and city contracts. These service providers included: a construction company hired as a contractor, an attorney, and a company that provided electrical and plumbing equipment. Each was hired by PISD, the city of Progreso, or both. It is alleged that members of the PISD Board were controlled by Jose Vela with a system of reward and retaliation. If the members voted as they were instructed they would receive bribe money, if not, retaliation was in order.
The corruption scheme that ultimately led the former Progreso, Texas mayor to plead guilty to federal charges for his role in it, was also a huge money-making scheme. The indictment indicates that from 2004-2006 the construction company allegedly paid Omar Vela $85,000 in bribes to acquire the jobs to build a new elementary school, school gym, and a municipal park for the Texas town. In 2008 and 2009, Omar Vela, Jose Vela, and Michael Vela were paid $10,000 by an attorney to land the job as local counsel for the PISD.
According to court documents, Omar Vela admitted to charging Rumaldo Bustamante, the owner of a company that provides electrical and plumbing equipment, with the task of providing fraudulent invoice to the city and the school district for services that were never provided. Once the money was paid, Omar told Bustamante to return the money to him as kickbacks. Through this particular scheme, Omar allegedly stole more than $14,000.
The Vela family illegaly acquired a total amount of approximately $314,000. Court documents also show that cash bribes and trips with mistresses were provided by those wanting to do business with the city and school district.
Jesus Bustos, an architect based in McAllen, Texas, is also facing charges. He is accused of using bribery to secure a contract to build a performing arts center for PISD, worth millions of dollars.
In March, a fourth member of the Vela family and Progreso Mayor Pro-Tem, Orlando Vela was taken into custody and is now facing federal charges as well. He is accused of using his company Borderline Office Supplies, to embezzle at least $5000 from PISD. He is also employed by the school district as its asset and risk manager.
Rumaldo Bustamante has not been criminally charged. Jose Vela and Michael Vela have been released on bond, and will soon make their guilty pleas. As part of his plea agreement, Omar Vela will forfeit the approximate $314,000 that he and his family made from the scheme.
Since pleading guilty to the bribery and corruption charges for his role in the scheme, the former Texas mayor has been released on bond to await his sentencing that is scheduled for July 25 in Houston, the outcome of which could mean up to 10 years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.
By Twanna Harps