- Associated Press - Monday, May 5, 2014

McALLEN, Texas (AP) - In a story May 4 about corruption in South Texas, The Associated Press reported the wrong date for former Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino’s resignation. Trevino resigned March 28, not in April.

A corrected version of the story is below:

South Texas corruption scandals spur reflection

String of high-profile public-corruption cases spurs reflection in South Texas


Associated Press

McALLEN, Texas (AP) - The corruption started small. Seized cash that didn’t make it into evidence. A package of cocaine slipped behind a bulletproof vest and spirited out of a raided house.

It escalated to a local drug unit forcing people to order drugs if the cops didn’t find any in their home, ripping off drug loads for resale and escorting cars ferrying 40-pound cocaine shipments. For the local sheriff’s son, a former police officer, the schemes funded late nights in clubs and trips to Las Vegas while he lived with his parents.

In the end, it earned him 17 years in prison and piled yet another public disgrace onto a region buffeted by them in the past year. Nine former lawmen were sentenced on federal drug charges here last week; the former Hidalgo County sheriff and other members of his inner circle are awaiting theirs in separate cases.

The Rio Grande Valley, a cluster of counties in southernmost Texas along the Mexico border, survives on commerce licit and illicit. By any standard, it has suffered a string of high-profile public corruption cases in the past year that has left officials here with the challenge of winning back the public’s confidence.

“It’s a hard thing to do to get this trust back,” said Eddie Guerra who was appointed as Hidalgo County’s interim sheriff in the scandal’s wake.

In neighboring Cameron County, a state judge, the district attorney and a handful of lawyers, including a former state lawmaker, were taken down in a bribery investigation for selling justice on the cheap. Some blasted Republican gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Greg Abbott earlier this year when in reference to that scandal, he said, “This creeping corruption resembles third-world country practices that erode the social fabric of our communities.” He later emphasized that the corruption was not unique to South Texas.

In tiny Progreso, a father and his two sons - one the mayor, the other the school board president - pleaded guilty to essentially selling public contracts to whoever agreed to line their pockets.

Each scandal was shocking in its audacity and callousness. And far from one bad apple, the Hidalgo and Cameron county cases were corruption by the dozen. Together they left the demoralizing impression that federal corruption investigations could go as far here as the Justice Department wanted.

In handing down the sentences last week to the nine former police officers and sheriff’s deputies in what became known as the “Panama Unit” case - not all were members of that drug unit - U.S. District Judge Randy Crane emphasized the damage they had done.

“Honest law enforcement is a cornerstone of a civilized society,” he said. “You have to have honesty in law enforcement or you won’t have a nation of laws without that. What you and the others have done has really shattered the confidence people have in law enforcement.”

Guerra, the new sheriff with a prodigious mustache and direct manner, is now in charge of repairing that damage in Hidalgo County until voters can elect a new sheriff in the fall.

A day after the sentencings, Guerra said he had spent the morning returning calls from citizens still boiling with frustration about the misdeeds that occurred under his predecessor.

Former Sheriff Lupe Trevino resigned March 28 and on April 14 pleaded guilty to money laundering for taking money from a drug trafficker. He had disavowed any knowledge of his son’s activities and proclaimed his own honesty.

“Now we know he’s not (honest),” Guerra said. “He had us fooled. They feel violated.”

He acknowledged the cumulative impact of the region’s scandals. “We put trust in our elected officials and they turn around and they do this.”

Guerra repeated the old maxim about trust being an easy thing to break and a very difficult thing to repair. “It’s going to be very hard for some of these citizens to trust,” he said.

Walt Oesterle, 78, said he voted for Trevino in the last election and remains in shock over his betrayal.

“I’m just really disappointed,” Oesterle said.

Searching for an explanation, Oesterle landed on the area’s poverty and the lure of cash associated with the drug business.

“It’s that drug money that does it,” he said. “It’s just tempting, I guess.”

Drug money was at the center of the Panama Unit scandal, but the Progreso mess involved public dollars and the Cameron County judicial debacle was fueled by people who could pay to make sure justice went their way.

Eric Uslaner, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland who has written extensively on the relationship of corruption and trust, said corruption is rooted in economic inequality. The Rio Grande Valley is one of the poorest areas in the nation.

“That leads to corruption because people are willing to tolerate corruption among leaders that they see as defending their interests against other leaders who might exploit them from other groups,” he said. That only yields more inequality and less trust in strangers. It feeds on itself, he said.

Danella Hughes, chairwoman of Leadership McAllen, an organization that mentors young adults with leadership potential, said the group discusses the corruption cases and tries to learn from them.

“We really don’t want that perception down here,” she said. “It’s frustrating. Every time a leader is taken down we take it to account.

“We acknowledge that it’s happening. We’re more of, ‘How do we prevent it?’”

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