Case involved student allegedly having sex with supe’s son-in-law

Donna ISD settles: $250k?

By G. Romero Wendorf

DONNA ISD – An Hidalgo County grand jury no-billed former Donna ISD teacher Carlo Cordova earlier this year for allegedly having sex with one of his former students, but that didn’t mean the school district and its insurance carrier escaped unscathed. Last week, in a McAllen federal court, both the plaintiff (the former student) and the defendant (Donna ISD and Cordova) reached a settlement just before the case was to be tried. According to one confidential source familiar with the lawsuit, the plaintiff received $250,000. Her attorney is Richard Garcia, who also serves as the mayor of Edinburg.

The settlement involves public monies, so the dollar amount is subject to open records, but so far, the figure has been kept quiet. Once classes begin again in January, The Advance News Journal will file an open records request with Donna ISD seeking a copy of the settlement agreement. If history is any judge, the district will object to the request, claiming confdentiality, and seek an opinion from the office of the Texas Attorney General (AG), which will rule in this newspaper’s favor as it has always done in any similar cases prior: any settlement involving public monies must be made public. Unlike dollar settlements between private parties involved in a lawsuit, an agreement to keep the settlement amount confidential isn’t valid if it includes a public entity, according to the AG.

Last week, Donna ISD Superintendent Fernando Castillo didn’t return a phone call seeking comment concerning the Cordova settlement. Since assuming the reigns as interim superintendent earlier this year, Castillo has proven near impossible to put on the record.

All of which probably isn’t surprising given the state of Donna ISD at the moment. Besides the case against Cordova, there is a lawsuit against the district, claiming that the board majority retaliated against six district employees who didn’t support them in the November 2014 election (Advance News; Dec. 16, 2015). 

On top of that, the district’s superintendent, Jesus Rene Reyna, remains sitting at home, on paid administrative leave since June, with an annual salary of $220,410.

In essence, for staying home, Donna ISD is paying Reyna a weekly paycheck of $4,238.65 comprised of taxpayer dollars. Twice, the school board has voted, 4-3 to not terminate Reyna’s employment with the district after a grand jury no-billed him in August for allegedly attempting to bribe the school district’s police chief, Roy Padilla. The chief claimed that Reyna and Board Trustee Ernesto Lugo had tried to bribe him to make a case go away that involved alleged insurance fraud tied to members of his family who worked for the district. (Lugo was also no-billed.) Despite those two votes not to terminate Reyna’s employment with the district, School Board President Alberto Sandoval hasn’t placed an item on the agenda to reinstate him. In fact, last month, he placed the same item on a school agenda for a third time – terminate Reyna’s employment – but the board failed to reach a quorum.

Meanwhile, the school district’s attorney, Robert Salinas, is pulling down a cool $25,000 monthly retainer and then billing $225 per hour on top of that. Monthly billings to the district average north of $30,000.

The previous district’s legal counsel, Guerra & Farah, was charging the district a monthly retainer of $8,000. In a previous story in this newspaper, however, Board President Alberto Sandoval said that even though the monthly retainer was lower -- $8k vs. $25k -- the district still paid more for legal services over the course of 12 months. According to Board Trustee Ernesto Lugo, however, as quoted in a previous story published in this newspaper, one might be able justify those previous higher legal costs considering the district had so much school construction underway at the time. 

“More than $100 million in school construction back then,” he said. “Today, the difference is night and day. No major construction under way. And to be quite honest, I’m not even sure we were paying the former legal firm more per year. You’d have to pull those billing records and compare them.”

On top of the lawsuits and negative publicity the district has attracted over this past year, two board trustees, Eloy Infante and Elpidio Yanez, now face federal charges involving alleged bribery (Advance News Journal; Nov. 18, 2015). They were both arrested and charged last month and handed a four-count indictment. They’re both out on bail awaiting trial.

To add fodder to the Donna ISD mix, critics of the current school board majority continually point out across social media that Attorney Salinas is a former convicted felon who was hired by the school board president and not the entire board after the newly-elected board majority gave him that authority. In fact, Salinas pleaded guilty in 1994 to federal charges involving laundering money for a local drug dealer. He was sentenced to 36 months in prison and surrendered his law license. After his release and successful completion of his probation, he argued before the Texas Bar that his moral character had been restored and asked that his law license be reinstated. His request was granted. 

In 2012, that law was changed. Today, if a lawyer is convicted of a felony, their law license is forever lost. But in a bit of irony, they can still be elected to the U.S. Congress, according to the U.S. Constitution.

Cordova case, et al

The Carlo Cordova case, based on whom you listen to, was either weak or strong. The county grand jury no-billed him, but according to the confidential source cited at the top of this story, even though the criminal case against him was no-billed, the civil case had some backbone to it because the district allegedly failed to follow proper protocol when first alerted to the student’s allegations of sexual impropriety on the part of Carlo Cordova, 26, who is not only married to Superintendent Reyna’s daughter, but was teaching criminal justice when the alleged sexual misconduct took place.

According to our source, the plaintiff claimed that several sexual acts took place inside the closet inside Cordova’s classroom. But allegedly, the classroom has no closet. The fact that the grand jury no-billed the former teacher also seems to suggest that there is insuffcient evidence to support the teen plaintiff’s claim that Cordova had sex with her not only inside his classroom, but also at his family’s bail bond company office and at a local motel.

Meanwhile, two other Donna students have claimed that two other teachers – Guillermo Arriaga, 38, and Arturo Castillo, Jr., 34 -- are guilty of having felonious sexual relations with them. These allegations date back to this past January and were made public the same time the Cordova case came to light. Three students. Three teachers. The allegations were brought to the attention of campus police in November 2014.

Unlike the Cordova case, which was no-billed by the grand jury, the cases against Arriaga and Castillo were true-billed. Where they rest now at the DA’s office is unclear at press time. Their civil cases in federal court, however, are still pending and have yet to be settled or sent to trial.

But if the sex-allegation case against Carlo Cordova was weak, why settle for $250,000 if indeed that dollar figure proves accurate?

Said our source: apparently the insurance carrier was of the opinion that in Hidalgo County, even if the case is tried in federal court, settling is often cheaper than going to trial and leaving the punitive damage amount in the hands of the jurors. Plus, how much does it cost these days to try a civil case in federal court? 

A lot, said another confidential source – a seasoned attorney who asked that his name not be used for this story. 

So what’s considered a lot? $150,000?

The attorney tried to stife a laugh.

“That’s cheap.”

Cheap?

“That would be considered low-end, a hundred and fifty.”

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