EAGLE PASS - A federal judge sentenced James Jonas III, the city manager at the center of a corruption investigation that took down the mayor and all but one city council member in Crystal City, to 35 years in prison.
Jonas, 56, had at one time negotiated questionable no-bid city contracts to pay his own $216,000 salary that represented half of the budget of Crystal City, a community of 7,500 people about 115 miles southwest of San Antonio.
Serving simultaneously as city attorney and city manager despite questions of a conflict of interest, Jonas also deflected questions of his residency by claiming he lived in a rusted and abandoned caboose parked in the center of town.
A federal jury in Del Rio convicted Jonas and former Mayor Ricardo Lopez on June 26, 2017. Jonas was convicted on 14 felony counts, including: five for wire fraud and theft, four for wire fraud, three for bribery, and two for conspiracy to commit bribery, fraud and theft, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Western District.
The jury convicted Lopez of four felony counts of wire fraud and theft, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and theft, one count of bribery and one count of conspiracy to commit bribery, the statement said.
“To hear how badly you left that town is shocking,” U.S. District Judge Alia Moses told Jonas Wednesday in her courtroom in Del Rio. She ordered that Jonas make a $1,047,814.05 restitution to Crystal City and pay the federal government $17,291.73.
“The financial records, everything was a mess,” Santos Camarillo, the current Crystal City city manager, testified before sentencing. “Staff didn’t know where they were going or what they were doing.”
Jonas, a lawyer, had been an influential and well-paid lobbyist in Austin and Washington before the Democrats took over Washington, D.C. after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, according to a San Antonio Express-News story from 2013.
After a bitter divorce, Jonas fell so far behind on child support in 2010 he was arrested and spent three months in the Bexar County Jail, the story said.
Then in the spring of 2012, Jonas got a call from one of his clients, Rogelio Mata, new member of Crystal City’s council. The council was looking to replace a city attorney who had suddenly quit.
Although he was not one of the five lawyers who had applied and although he’d never been a city attorney before, the council voted 4-1 to hire Jonas. The now-convicted Mayor Lopez cast the lone vote in dissent, arguing the council was ignoring proper hiring procedures.
According to federal authorities, from May 2012 until February 2016, “Jonas, Lopez, and other city officials used their official positions to enrich themselves by soliciting and accepting bribes from persons seeking to do business in Crystal City.”
“Jonas and Lopez also used emails, texts and phone calls to carry out their scheme to defraud Crystal City and its citizens through bribery and the concealment of information.”
Jonas was charging $150 an hour for city attorney services the city had been getting for $1,000 a month. In time, he took over the city manager’s position. But the conflicts of interest and his fundraising methods came to the attention of federal investigators.
In particular, was a $2.25 million bond offering to pay for city infrastructure. But rather than earmark money for individual projects, Jonas had the money deposited in the general fund to cover his salary and a variety of unauthorized spending.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s account, a general fund of $2,207,050.62 had been drained to $2,199.95 by the end of October, 2015. Crystal City still owed the contractors for the infrastructure projects more than $735,000.
On Jan. 2, 2016, a Border Patrol agent arrested council member Marco Rodriguez, 36, in Big Wells and charged him with attempting to smuggle three immigrants into the country.
In the next week, a federal grand jury indicted Jonas, Lopez, Mata and two other council members — Mata’s brother Roel Mata and Gilbert Urrabazo — for their part in wire fraud and bribery from the contractors involved in the infrastructure scheme.
In addition, the grand jury indicted Ngoc Tri Nguyen, operator of a so-called “8-liner” gambling and money laundering operation, and Lopez for accepting a $6,000 bribe from Nguyen to allow him to operate.
During a council meeting to discuss the recall elections of those indicted, police handcuffed and arrested Lopez after he scuffled with a political opponent. “He was inciting a riot,” Police Chief Jesus Lopez told the San Antonio Express-News. Citizens cheered as he was taken away.
“I think the whole town has gone crazy,” former municipal judge Dora Paloma told the Express-News. “This has never happened before.”
That spring, voters in Crystal City cleaned house, electing replacements for the mayor and all of the council members who had been indicted.