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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of Texas

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Progreso Mayor Convicted In Bribery Scheme

McALLEN, Texas - Omar Leonel Vela, 36, has entered a plea of guilty to conspiracy and bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, announced United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson.

Vela, the mayor of Progreso was originally charged along with several others based on their alleged participation in a scheme to create a “pay to play” public contracting system in Progreso. Today, Vela admitted he participated in the scheme from 2004 through 2013.

The school district for Progreso is the Progreso Independent School District (PISD). From 2004 through 2013, PISD received more than $1 million per year in federal program grants and funds from the U.S. Department of Education. In order to obtain contracts from PISD or from the City of Progreso, contractors were required to pay bribes to Vela and others.

Vela and others were able to extract bribes from contractors as a result of their political control of Progreso and PISD. Vela was a government official, giving him a level of control over local government. Vela and others facilitated the scheme by gathering bribe payments from contractors and delivering the payments, of which he would then receive a portion.

According to the plea agreement, during the time frame of the conspiracy, Vela and others required a local architect, his firm, a construction company and the school board attorney to pay bribes and kickbacks to Vela and others in order to obtain work with PISD or the City of Progreso. In total, Vela and others extracted more than $300,000 in bribe payments.

In addition, from April 2009 to December 2012, Vela instructed the owner of a plumbing and electrical supply company to provide fraudulent invoices to PISD and the City of Progreso for products they did not provide. When the invoices were paid, the owner returned the funds to Vela, resulting in more than $14,000 in kickbacks.

The charges against the others in this case remain pending. They are presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.

U.S. District Judge David Hittner, who accepted the pleas today, has set sentencing for July 25, 2014. At that time, Vela faces up to five years in federal prison for the conspiracy and another possible 10 years for the bribery involving federal programs conviction.  Both convictions carry as possible punishment a maximum fine of $250,000. He was permitted to remain on bond pending that hearing.

The investigation was conducted by the FBI. Assistant United States Attorney Robert S. Johnson is prosecuting the case.

Updated April 30, 2015