- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - The FBI and Texas Rangers are leading a new task force created in the wake of public corruption cases in South Texas that brought down a sheriff, a judge, a district attorney and other elected officials.

The unit was formed earlier this month to specifically combat public corruption in the Rio Grande Valley and serve as a long-term tool to restore the public’s trust, said Rock Stone, an FBI supervisory special agent.

“With every case that leads to an arrest, the public (will be) pleased that someone is finally doing something about it,” said Stone, who leads the unit based in McAllen.

Stone said each of the FBI’s 56 field offices investigates public corruption, but an “inordinate amount” of such cases in the Valley the last couple years necessitated the extra resources.

Stone declined to say how many people are in the unit, but said the number of agents now working on public corruption has more than doubled.

The Texas Department of Public Safety did not elaborate on the Texas Rangers’ role in the unit, deferring such questions to the FBI. DPS issued a statement describing the task force as “an important force multiplier to our existing efforts” to investigate public corruption.

Other participating agencies include the internal investigative arms of Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security.

Some of the more recent high profile cases in the Valley include ex-Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino, who was sentenced to five years in prison in July after pleading guilty to money laundering linked to drug-related funds.

Trevino’s son, Jonathan, an ex-police officer in nearby Mission, was part of a group of deputies and officers convicted of stealing drugs and protecting drug loads while working for a local drug task force.

Earlier this month, a campaign manager pleaded guilty for his role in providing cash and cocaine to secure votes for school board candidates in Donna, in Hidalgo County.

In neighboring Cameron County, ex-District Attorney Armando Villalobos, along with a state judge and various lawyers were convicted for their roles in a bribery scheme in which justice was sold.

Villalobos’ case came up during this year’s governor’s race when Gov.-elect Greg Abbott said, “This creeping corruption resembles third-world country practices that erode the social fabric of our communities.” Abbott later emphasized the corruption was not unique to South Texas.

Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz, who replaced Villalobos, applauded the new FBI task force.

But Saenz said people shouldn’t interpret the task force’s formation as an indicator that corruption is more prevalent in South Texas.

“Do we have corruption here in South Texas? Yes we do. Is it only in South Texas? No,” he said. “It’s all over. We haven’t cornered the market on corruption.”

Stone said that while the majority of public servants in South Texas are honorably serving their communities, the unit is here to stay.

“We’re here and we’re on it,” he said.

“We have no intention of standing this task force down.”

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Online tips for the FBI task force: https://tips.fbi.gov/

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70

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