Crystal City is a quaint South Texas town of about 7,500 people.
Its most famous resident is a cartoon sailor with a corncob pipe, one good eye and a fearsome right hook. Popeye is the official mascot of Crystal City, the self-proclaimed “spinach capital of the world.” And earlier this year, the life-size Popeye statue in front of City Hall had a front-row seat to a citywide purge.
In February, scores of FBI agents stormed the tiny City Hall and arrested most of the city’s leaders in connection with a bribery and kickback scheme.
The indictments allege that the city manager, the mayor, two city council members and one ex-member, and a Texas businessman were exchanging city permits and construction contracts for money. The payments ranged from a few hundred dollars to thousands. At one point, the city manager allegedly got a contractor to pay for his country club membership.
Another embattled Crystal City leader, Councilman Marco Rodriguez, was arrested separately and charged earlier this year with human trafficking.
That left only one council member not facing federal charges. But indictments haven’t entirely stopped the council from trying to conduct city business.
While I was visiting City Hall, I saw Rodriguez and Mayor Ricardo Lopez frantically try to call an emergency meeting. They knew their power was waning and wanted to appoint their choice for city manager before the May recall election. The former city manager, W. James Jonas III, is on indefinite suspension for his role in the bribery scheme.
But the meeting never happened. Instead, the mayor was arrested for harassing the city clerk. Such unusual activity has become almost routine in Crystal City.
Before the arrest, I spoke with a defiant Lopez in front of the Popeye statue. He said: “Did I clean up my city hall? Did I clean up corruption? Yeah. Am I indicted? Yeah.” He added, “We’re going to see in a court of law if I’m guilty or not.”
So where did this civic quagmire begin?
Soon after the council was elected in 2014, the rookie politicians began deferring to Jonas.
Jonas stands out in the overwhelmingly Hispanic population. An Anglo outsider who had been an influential Republican lobbyist in Washington, he fell on hard times after Democrats won Congress and the White House in 2008. He spent a few months in jail for not paying child support.
Then in 2012 came a lifeline from Crystal City. A former client had become a city council member there and offered Jonas the job of city attorney. He didn’t even have to apply. Jonas’ salary, and his influence over the council, expanded over time.
One of the first things the new council did in 2014 was hire Jonas as the city manager.
In a town where the median household income is $26,000, Jonas paid himself $216,000 plus a $6,000 travel stipend. That’s nearly half the city’s annual budget. At the same time, the council was voting to raise taxes and fees.
By the end of last year, council meetings had become standing room-only affairs. In a video of one meeting from the Zavala County Sentinel, angry residents jeered at the elected officials as former Mayor Jose Mata stepped forward.
“Now you’ve gotten yourself in a corner where you have to raise everything in order to pay this man,” he said while pointing to Jonas.
Residents have a laundry list of allegations: unjustified firings of city employees, questionable bids being awarded to family members, grant money disappearing without contractors getting paid. But what really insulted people was how blatantly they believed Jonas abused his power.
He’d even established residency by claiming to live in a city landmark: an abandoned caboose parked in the middle of town. A reporter from News 4 San Antonio confronted Jonas about it on camera, asking if he actually planned to live in the caboose on city property.
“I absolutely hoped that was a possibility,” Jonas replied.
Mata said they were fed up: “We wanted to put an end to it.” So finally, some people in town reached out to the FBI, Mata said, adding that “they were the ones who ultimately got the ball rolling.”
Actually, it was more like a wrecking ball.
For residents who long had suspected that something was rotten in Crystal City, the February raid was like a federal holiday. FBI officials and residents present told me that people were cheering as agents stormed City Hall.
Public corruption is a top criminal priority for the FBI, with arrests tripling in recent years in the southern district of Texas. There were 64 cases in 2014. A few weeks ago, two public officials in the next county over – a magistrate and a commissioner – were sentenced for their involvement in another bribery scheme.
A Facebook page dedicated to local humor – Shit You Hear in Crystal City – started to lampoon the series of unbelievable events there. It has become a mouthpiece for much of the outrage in town. Cibi Perez, whose family is from Crystal City, operates the page from Wisconsin. He’s tapped into current events and scandals, and he ruthlessly taunts the indicted public officials.
On April Fools’ Day, Perez used a fake Facebook account for Lopez to lure a real TV news crew to the real mayor’s house.
According to Mata, the spectacle of the council members ultimately led to their downfall. “I believe that had it not been for the absurdity of the council, we probably wouldn’t have been able to get them out. That’s what made the citizens of Crystal City get all riled up … we all finally came together.”
In a landslide recall election this spring, all indicted council members were removed. Only 25 people voted for Lopez to stay in office.
In a document obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, Jonas describes himself as a crusader against graft. He blames the Latino political party that briefly held power in Crystal City, La Raza, stating that “on a daily basis, Jonas battles with the vestigial lies and hate that brought La Raza to power.”
Jonas declined an interview.
The businessman in the scheme, Ngoc Tri Nguyen, aka “Mr. T,” pleaded guilty to bribery based on allegations that he paid Lopez $6,000 in exchange for running an illegal gambling operation in town. He faces up to 10 years in prison and fine of up to $250,000.
The criminal case against Crystal City’s indicted officials will begin this summer.
This story was edited by Fernando Diaz and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Ike Sriskandarajah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioIke.