DALLAS -A construction firm whose top executive was implicated in a widespread federal corruption investigation has ceased work on three bond-funded projects in El Paso County, officials said.

Steven Sambrano, owner of Sambrano Corp., also known as SamCorp., pleaded not guilty to bribery and fraud charges in the Southern District of Texas in McAllen. Also pleading not guilty was Ramiro Guzman, a consultant for SamCorp., according to federal documents.

The two were indicted along with seven other executives and officials in a bribery investigation in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in South Texas' Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The South Texas investigation parallels one in El Paso County that has led to a number of guilty pleas and resignations by current and former government officials, as well as three executives in the bond industry accused of participating in a bribery scheme.

The El Paso County probe unfolded a year ago when Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided homes and offices of public officials, business executives and nonprofits as part of major corruption investigation. FBI officials say the investigation is continuing.

In the Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso County, SamCorp has been dropped as the builder of two bond-funded school projects, one of which was nearing completion under a $250 million bond program approved by voters in 2004. The contractor has also been dropped as builder of a $5.9 million bookstore on the University of Texas at El Paso campus.

Another El Paso school system, the Socorro Independent School District, is rebidding a contract that was previously awarded to SamCorp.

On the Ysleta and UTEP projects, SamCorp's construction bond firm, Hartford Financial Services, is taking responsibility for hiring another contractor, officials said.

SamCorp, known as one of West Texas' largest construction firms, could not be reached for comment. A recorded message said the phones were temporarily disconnected, and the company Web site did not appear to be functioning.

The FBI investigation began in 2005 following a tip concerning the nonprofit National Center for the Employment of the Disabled. When agents raided government offices on May 9, 2007, the extent of the investigation became more widely known.

A month after the raids, John Travis Ketner, chief of staff for county Judge Anthony Cobos, the top official in the county, pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud charges, identifying 22 co-conspirators in a federal document.

Former County Commissioner Betty Flores has since pleaded guilty to accepting bribes. Former Bear, Stearns & Co. executives Roberto "Bobby" Ruiz and Chris Pak have also pleaded guilty to bribery charges. Former First Southwest Co. executive Hector Zavaleta, who served as financial adviser to the county, city government, several school districts, and other governmental bodies, has said through his attorney that he is aiding the investigation.

None of the seven who pleaded guilty have been arrested or sentenced, and most documents in the cases remain sealed as the investigation continues.

 

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