DALLAS — Federal investigators yesterday won their first guilty plea from a former school official in their wide-ranging probe of corruption among public officials in El Paso County. Former El Paso Independent School District trustee Carlos Villa “Coach” Cordova pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, and deprivation of honest services, according to U.S. attorney Johnny Sutton.Cordova entered the plea before U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo.Sutton’s office reported that Cordova “conspired with others to obtain money and property by false and fraudulent pretenses, violating his fiduciary duty as an elected EPISD trustee, and received cash money in exchange for his support and vote in his official capacity as an EPISD trustee for agreements between EPISD and a vendor seeking business with the EPISD.”Cordova was one of two trustees on the school board who resigned in August, citing ill health. Trustee Sal Mena — who quit after the Fedeal Bureau of Investigation searched his office in the investigation of public corruption — has not been charged with any crime.On Tuesday, the school board named Carolyn Grantham, a former EPISD administrator, and Carlos Flores, a lawyer with Brown McCarroll, to fill the two vacancies.In August, an architect who had done business with the board, Bernardo Lucero Jr., pleaded guilty to helping to secure a fraudulent loan for one of Mena’s family members. At the time, Lucero was under contract to build the recently opened Hut Brown Middle School.Lucero faces up to 20 years in federal prison on the mail fraud conspiracy and up to five years in federal prison on the false statements charges. Each charge could include a $250,000 fine. Sentencing has not been scheduled. A mechanics lien filed by United Bank of El Paso Del Norte in February 2006 shows that Lucero worked on a $25,000 project at the home of Katherine E. Mena, daughter of the trustee, according to the El Paso Times. The lien filed by the bank shows that Katherine Mena borrowed $25,000 for construction on her home payable to Lucero. The information used in the Cordova’s guilty plea mentions other unindicted co-conspirators but does not identify the type of business they were doing. “The investigation is ongoing,” a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney said.Until Cordova entered his guilty plea yesterday, the only officials convicted had been formerly with the county government.John Travis Ketner, former chief of staff to County Judge Anthony Cobos, pleaded guilty in May to fraud and conspiracy charges that involved attempts to solicit bribes for three county officials. Press reports identified the officials as Cobos and county commissioners Luis Sarinana and Miguel Teran, all of whom are still in office and deny any wrongdoing.Ketner’s information outlines an attempt to shake down the county’s financial adviser First Southwest Co. for bribes in exchange for keeping its contract. According to the information, the company did not pay the “requisite bribes” and was fired by Cobos and the two county commissioners in March. The other two county commissioners, Dan Haggerty and Veronica Escobar, who have not been implicated, expressed puzzlement over the firing of First Southwest.In August, former County Commissioner Betti Flores pleaded guilty to accepting “cash bribes” for her vote on financial services contracts involving the county hospital.First Southwest has denied any wrongdoing in the case. The company’s former managing director, Hector Zavaleta, has resigned from the firm and has said through his attorney that he is cooperating with the investigation.Other bond industry executives who have left their firms since the investigation began include Roberto “Bobby” Ruiz, managing director of Bear, Stearns & Co., and two RBC Capital Markets executives — Mel Schonhorst, managing director, and vice president Steven Fuller.
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