El Paso public relations consultant Mark Schwartz and former Ysleta Independent School District trustee Linda Chavez entered guilty pleas Friday before U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo in connection with the El Paso corruption investigation focusing on the now-defunct ACCESS Health Source.
Schwartz pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to engage in racketeering activity and faces eight years in federal prison under the plea agreements. According to discussions within Federal court on Friday, Schwartz’s plea is a binding agreement that will result in a 96 month sentence, or eight years.
Chavez pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and deprivation of honest services and faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a maximum $250,000 fine, however, details of her adjusted plea have not yet been discussed.
By pleading guilty, Schwartz admitted that he carried out schemes on behalf of former ACCESS President Frank Apodaca, former CEO of the National Center for the Employment of the Disabled (NCED) and ACCESS owner Robert “Bob” Jones, and El Paso attorney Luther Jones to pay bribes to elected officials.
Those elected officials included former El Paso Independent School District Trustee Salvador “Sal” Mena, Ysleta Independent School Board President Mickey Duntley, former El Paso County Commissioner Elizabeth “Betti” Flores, former El Paso County Commissioner Larry Medina and former El Paso County Judge Dolores Briones to perform acts in their official capacity which would aid ACCESS in securing and retaining lucrative health care management service contracts.
Chavez, by pleading guilty, admitted to conspiring from June 2004 to July 2005 with Mark Schwartz, Frank Apodaca, Luther Jones and Mickey Duntley to secure an Ysleta ISD healthcare services contract with ACCESS. She also admitted to conspiring to secure a YISD contract for legal services with a local law firm at Luther Jones’ and El Paso attorney David Escobar’s bidding.
ACCESS was a third party administrator of healthcare benefits for self-insured entities.
"(Friday's) pleas send a strong message regarding the FBI’s continued aggressive targeting of individuals in the El Paso community involved in public corruption. Nothing erodes the public trust more than those who illegally conspire to benefit from taxpayer dollars in order to line their own pockets,” stated FBI Special Agent in Charge Mark Morgan.
Both defendants remain free on bond pending sentencing. A sentencing date has been set.
Ray Rodriguez, a former Socorro Independent School District trustee, was present during Friday’s hearings when his two co-defendants entered pleas. He did not enter his own plea. He was called behind closed doors moments before the hearing. Rodriguez appeared in the audience during the plea hearing, and left after the pleas were entered.
Rodriguez could be overheard in the hallways following the case telling his attorney, “Well, that was painful,” but declined to comment further on how he felt about the case when questioned.
Another defendant in this case, former County Commissioner Larry Medina, has asked Montalvo to disallow some evidence at his trial that pertains to another bribe prosecutors say he received that isn't part of this case.
Medina's attorney said he wasn't even a county commissioner at the time he is alleged to have accepted that other bribe. Montalvo didn't immediately rule on that motion.
Between 1998 and 2007, ACCESS contracted with self-insured El Paso government entities, including the County and three school districts, to provide administrative services for their health insurance programs.