Lawsuit alleges ex-county official profited from border levee wall project


McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A 2017 lawsuit alleging fraud and incorrect payment of millions in taxpayer dollars during the 2008-2009 construction of the border levee wall in South Texas could go to trial, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

The 13th District State Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the case, Hidalgo County Drainage District vs. Integ Corporation and Godfrey Garza Jr., should not have been dismissed by summary judgment by an earlier court.

That sets the ability for the county to take this to trial, Border Report is told.

The case has been dragging through the court system ever since the Hidalgo County Drainage District Board (which is comprised of the Hidalgo County commissioners) filed a lawsuit against its former drainage district manager, Godfrey Garza Jr., alleging that he should not have profited from the building of the border levee wall in Hidalgo County starting in 2008.

The border wall was built in South Texas under federal funds secured by the 2006 Secure Fence Act. In addition, Hidalgo County voters approved bonds for millions of dollars to shore up the drainage system and levees within the flat, flood-prone county by building the wall atop the levees.

The lawsuit alleges that Garza, who had worked for years as the drainage district manager, had convinced the Drainage District Board in 2007, to hire his company, Integ Corp., to oversee the county’s projects, including the $100 million voter-approved drainage bond project. And his company negotiated a new contract so that Integ would “be paid a fee of one and a half percent based upon ‘actual construction costs,’ excluding land acquisition involved in the project,” according to court documents.

The lawsuit alleges that Garza, through his company, improperly was paid more than $3.7 million in commission costs between 2008 and 2012, which the county says it should not have been entitled to.

In addition, the lawsuit alleges Garza’s wife’s company, Valley Data Collection Specialists Inc., also was improperly paid over $1 million in taxpayer funds relating to border wall construction.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez is seen on Aug. 30, 2019, at a trade meeting with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

In December 2017, the Texas Tribune with ProPublica wrote an expose on the Godfrey Garza case, writing: “A shrewd county insider, Garza ran an obscure agency that had plans to repair 22 miles of crumbling dirt levees running along the Rio Grande, the riverine border between Texas and Mexico. Garza helped negotiate a deal: If Homeland Security would pay to fix the levees, the feds could build their fence on top of them. For Homeland Security, it was simple, one-stop shopping — no protests, no environmental hurdles, no need to buy land. Over the next several years, the federal government poured more than $174 million into the bank accounts of the Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 to build a fortified levee. The result was unique among the 654 miles of fence constructed by the agency across the U.S.-Mexico border: a looming, 15-foot-high vertical wall of concrete, topped in places by another 18 feet of rusty metal fence.”

The county had appealed with the 13th Court of Appeals after visiting state District Judge Martin Chiuminatto in February 2018 dismissed the county’s initial lawsuit against Garza.

On Monday, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez — who was not in office when the original lawsuit was filed — said he could not discuss the specifics of the case.

It is still an ongoing thing,” Cortez said. “We will pursue every claim that we have.”

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