2 Plead Guilty in Texas Insurance and Construction Corruption Case

January 7, 2009

Two contractors pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in Texas for offering thousands of dollars in kickbacks to four former Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District school board members and ex-superintendent Arturo Guajardo.

Steven Sambrano, 49, and Ramiro Guzman, 62, both of El Paso, pleaded guilty to conspiring to give school officials sports tickets, plane rides, hotel rooms and more than $100,000 in cash in exchange for votes on district construction and insurance contracts.

Between 2000 and 2004, the PSJA board awarded Sambrano Corp.’s El Paso-based construction firm, SamCorp, contracts to build two elementary schools and a maintenance facility.

But school district officials may have demanded the bribes up front before they were offered by SamCorp, Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Eastepp said.

“To be fair, the hooks had been set and they were being reeled in,” said Eastepp in a story for the online edition of The (McAllen) Monitor.

Sambrano and Guzman’s guilty pleas came as part of an agreement with prosecutors that shielded SamCorp from federal prosecution. The company has since filed for bankruptcy amid demands from creditors seeking millions of dollars, Sambrano’s attorney Sheldon Weisfeld said.

Sambrano admitted being an officer with SamCorp while Guzman admitted his role was as a consultant for SamCorp and that he aided in obtaining these contracts, prosecutors said.

Both men admitted the items included tickets to a San Antonio Spurs game for three board members, clothing purchased for two board members, tickets to Houston Astros games for a board member, tickets to an Oscar De la Hoya boxing match held in Las Vegas, Nev., at a cost of $6,500 for various officials with PSJA and, a “Final Four” package (tickets and hotel rooms) to the NCAA basketball tournament in San Antonio provided at a cost of more than $14,000 for a board member, according to prosecutors. Most of these acts were alleged to have occurred in 2003 and 2004.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa said contractors should share just as much blame for the school district bribery scandal as the indicted elected officials.

“The public officials wouldn’t be taking bribes if business wasn’t paying them. The people out in business are profiting from this even more than the officials,” Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa, who allowed both men to remain free on bond until they are sentenced, indicated he may not follow prosecutors’ recommendations to consider the business leaders minor players when sentencing them in April.

The conspiracy count to which both men entered guilty pleas carries a potential maximum sentence of five years in federal prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, without parole.

The men are the fifth and sixth contractors to admit guilt in the case, which has spanned three years and four separate indictments.

Only one indicted contractor – construction consultant and Donna school board member George Hernandez – has maintained his innocence. He is set to go to trial in March.

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