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Fresh off a successful first session that included the passage of 18 major bills and one amendment bearing his name – including measures that provided $630,000 for a bachelor’s degree program at South Texas College, will reduce high school dropout rates, punish human traffickers and sexual predators, protect private property rights, and reduce the growing health and safety problems caused by roadside vendors – Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, has been honored by his Democratic colleagues for his legislative achievements. Muñoz, featured left with Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, on the House floor in late May, authored, coauthored, sponsored and cosponsored more than 60 bills and one amendment – including 25 measures approved by the full House that publicly recognized major achievements by constituents in his House District 36. See lead story later in this posting.

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The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, along with the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, on Thursday, June 9, hosted a job fair for Santana Textiles, one of the world’s largest denim manufacturers, which is constructing a $180 million complex at the city’s North Industrial Park. This first round, held at the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, 602 West University Drive, focused on seeking skilled applicants for 20 positions, such as licensed electricians, mechanics, and mechanic helpers. “This job fair helped kick off Santana Textiles’ hiring process, but we will be hiring throughout the summer,” said Lori A. Garza, Manager of Human Resources for Santana Textiles, LLC. “We are happy to cooperate with the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation and the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce and appreciate their support.” Interested area residents who were unable to make it to the event may call the EEDC at 383-7124 for more information about future hiring by Santana Textiles, which eventually will have a workforce of 800 along with the major investment for facilities and state-of-the art equipment. Featured from left: Letty Reyes, Project Manager, EEDC; Evana Vleck, Director of Marketing and Special Events, Edinburg Chamber of Commerce; and Lori A. Garza, Manager of Human Resources, Santana Textiles, LLC.

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Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, featured front row, center, participates in a group portrait with his Capitol office and House committee staff members, praising them for their individual and collective achievements on behalf of his constituents. “It’s appropriate that I take a moment to recognize the solid staff that makes our office run as effectively as it does. These are smart, young people who have found public service to be a value,” said Peña. “They are a credit to our community and to the State of Texas. I expect great things from them.” Featured, front row, from left: Maricela De León, chief of staff; Rep. Peña; and Paul Kamprath, chief clerk, House Committee on Technology. Featured, back row, from left: Felicia Peña, assistant committee clerk; Melinda Reyes, legislative intern; Mikael García, legislative director; Trey Pérez, legislative intern; and Jacob Welch, assistant committee clerk. See a related story later in this posting on Peña being bestowed the Teddy Roosevelt Award by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

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The University of Texas-Pan American is forming a Center for Bilingual Studies, which will take a multi-disciplinary approach to studying the Rio Grande Valley’s bilingual community. Featured from left: Dr. Glenn Martínez, professor of modern languages, and member of the Board of Directors for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation; Dr. José Ruiz-Escalante, professor of curriculum and instruction, Dr. Dahlia Guerra, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and sister to Edinburg Mayor Richard García; Dr. Héctor Ochoa, dean of the College of Education; Dr. Jennifer Joy Esquierdo, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, Leonides Gómez, professor of curriculum and instruction, and Dr. Francisco Guajardo, associate professor of educational leadership. See story later in this posting.

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Veterans from the Rio Grande Valley, featured here in Austin earlier in the spring on behalf of a full-service Veterans Administration Hospital for the Valley, are closing following reports from Washington, D.C. which point to progress on that issue at the federal level as well. Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, has included legislation in the fiscal year 2012 Military Construction and Veterans funding bill that would bring South Texas one step closer to having a full-service VA hospital. The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, June 15, by a  vote of 411 to 5. Featured in this portrait, taken in the State Capitol complex in Austin are, from left: Rep. J.M. Lozano, D-Kingsville; José María Vázquez; Joe Ibarra; Treto Garza (seated); Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco; Rubén Cantú; Pete Garza; Sisto Barrera; and Scott Jenkines, chief-of-staff for Rep. Martínez. See story later in this posting.

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The inaugural graduates with Mexican American Studies certificate from the University of Texas-Pan American – which was first offered in spring 2010 –  celebrated the historic moment in May. To earn the certificate, a student must already be admitted to a graduate program at UTPA and take 12 hours of course work in Mexican American Studies from any discipline with no more than six hours in any one subject. Featured, front row, from left: certificate recipients Karmin San Martín and Vania Barrera; Dr. Cynthia Brown, UTPA vice provost for graduate studies; and certificate recipients Verónica Sandoval and Orquidea Morales. Back row, from left: certificate recipients Rodrigo Cano, Milena Melo, Lucas Espinoza, Hugo Paz, and Dennis Garza. See story later in this posting.

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The Edinburg Volunteer Fire Department recently donated six sets of protective helmets, jackets, pants and gloves to the foundry at the University of Texas-Pan American to keep artists safe when working with the molten metal. (A foundry is an establishment where metal is melted and poured into molds.) Shawn Snider, the fire department’s chief, said the gear is no longer useable by firefighters to enter burning buildings, but is safe for the artists to use when working in the foundry. Featured, from left: Jacob Quintanilla, EVFD firefighter; R.H. Pursley, EVFD deputy chief; Jaime Piña, EVFD firefighter; Antonio Salazar, EVFD deputy chief; Susan Fitzsimmons, UTPA Art Department chair; Douglas Clark, instructor at the UTPA Art Foundry Program; and Shawn Snider, EVFD chief. See story later in this posting.

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UnitedHealthcare, the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Lone Star Insurance Services on Thursday, June 23, will host a seminar for small-business owners on Healthy Texas, a statewide health initiative to offer affordable health insurance to small-business employees and their families. The seminar, scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., will be held at Lone Star National Bank, 520 E. Nolana, Suite 110, in McAllen. Registration begins at 8 a.m. UnitedHealthcare has been selected to provide insurance plans for Healthy Texas, an employer-based, public-private health insurance program offered by the Texas Department of Insurance. Healthy Texas uses state and federal funding to make it more affordable for qualifying small employers to offer health care benefits to their employees. Premiums for Healthy Texas products are, on average, 25- to 30-percent lower than commercial market plans. Featured making preparations for the seminar are, from left: Robbie Burgess, an executive with UnitedHealthcare; Laura McClelland, a renewal account consultant with UnitedHealthcare; and Rubén Garza with Lone Star Insurance Services. See story later in this posting.

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JoAnn Gama of McAllen, Chief of Schools at IDEA Public Schools, has been appointed by President Obama to President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Gama, featured here at the White House for a swearing-in ceremony on Thursday, May 26, held in the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C., which  featured U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Gama was one of more than a dozen new members selected by the President to help improve academic excellence and opportunities by providing advice to President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Gama co-founded IDEA Public Schools in 1998 as an academy, and after receiving a state charter, opened IDEA as an independent charter school in August, 2000. Since IDEA Public Schools’ launch, Gama has served as Principal and Chief Operating Officer. In 1997, she joined Teach For America in Donna, where she taught 4th and 5th grade English as a Second Language. Gama earned her B.A. from Boston University and her M.ED. in Educational Leadership from the University of Texas-Pan American. Also in this White House photograph is fellow Texan and commission member Ricardo Romo, the president of the University of Texas at San Antonio. See story later in this posting.

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Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz, featured right, on Thursday, May 19 in Mission expressed his appreciation to Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, for the South Texas lawmaker’s help in securing $5,975,000 in federal funds to construct a new 1.5 million gallons per day wastewater treatment plant in that border community. Cuellar – along with, from left, Jake Sheeran, Area Director for the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development, and Paco Valentín, USDA Rural Development State Director – also announced grant awards of $1 million to the City of Alton for the construction of a new fire station, and $121,275 to the City of Palmview to begin a Revolving Loan Fund to aid small and emerging businesses. Cuellar, whose congressional district includes portions of Rep. Sergio Muñoz’ state House District 36 and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa’s Senate District 20, also praised both state lawmakers for their roles in helping secure the grants. “One of the things that federal agencies look at is what sort of support they have in the local communities,” said Cuellar, himself a longtime state representative before he was elected to Congress. “If (local projects) have the support of the state legislators such as Rep. Muñoz and Sen. Hinojosa, that helps a lot.” Muñoz, who was in Austin for the state legislative session, said the alliances between the area’s state and federal elected leaders “continue to pay off. These important projects will help many of my constituents in House District 36 with the resources that will result in improved public safety, public health and economic development, as these three cities continue to grow and prosper.”  See story later in this posting.

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Edinburg Mayor Richard García, featured front row, center, says he would support a pending legal ruling – currently being developed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott – if that decision allows Texas homeowners with diabetes, cancer, and other long-term major illnesses to qualify for the state’s landmark homestead property tax freeze. “Earlier this year, Attorney General Abbott was asked by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles that, in light of a recent decision by Congress to now consider diabetes and cancer as physical disabilities, does that mean Texans with these afflictions now also qualify for a freeze on their local property taxes?” asks García. “If he rules that they – and possibly others facing long-term major illnesses –  do indeed qualify, then I would support such an expansion of the homestead property tax freeze.” The Edinburg mayor is seen here with other city leaders following a May 18 public affairs luncheon at the ECHO highlighting major economic development achievements. Featured, front row, from left: Agustín Hernández, Jr., attorney, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson (LGBS); Pedro Salazar, executive director, Edinburg Economic Development Corporation (EEDC); Mayor Richard García, president, EEDC Board of Directors; Lucy Canales, attorney and general partner, LGBS; and Anissa Salazar, marketing coordinator, LGBS. Middle row, from left: Edinburg City Councilmember Elias Longoria, Jr.; Edinburg City Councilmember Noé Garza, P.E.; Flo Prater, Rio Valley Realty; Maggie Kent, General Dentistry Centers; Edna Peña, Horizon Properties; Marissa Castañeda, chief operations officer; Doctors Hospital at Renaissance; Letty González, president, Edinburg Chamber of Commerce; and Elva Jackson Garza, vice president, Edwards Abstract Title Company (EATC); Back row, from left: Ramiro Garza, Jr., Edinburg city manager; Johnny Rodríguez, owner, Austin Personnel Services; Mark Peña, legal counsel, EATC and member, EEDC Board of Directors; Eliseo Salinas, operations manager, LGBS; and Sam de la Garza, public relations, LGBS. See top story on the possible property tax freeze expansion later in this posting.

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Edinburg Mayor García says he would support possible AG Opinion expanding property tax freeze to homeowners with long-term illnesses

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Edinburg Mayor Richard García says he would support a pending legal ruling – currently being developed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott – if that decision allows Texas homeowners with diabetes, cancer, and other long-term major illnesses to qualify for the state’s landmark homestead property tax freeze.

Such a legal ruling is known as an Attorney General Opinion, which is a written interpretation of existing law, according to the state attorney general’s office. The state attorney general writes opinions as part of his responsibility to act as legal counsel for the State of Texas, Abbott’s office adds, noting that opinions interpret legal issues that are ambiguous, obscure, or otherwise unclear.

García, himself a veteran attorney and former long-time Hidalgo County court-at-law judge, reports that Abbott has been asked to interpret legal issues arising from a recent change in the federal definition of a physical disability.

“Earlier this year, Attorney General Abbott was asked by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles that, in light of a recent decision by Congress to now consider diabetes and cancer as physical disabilities, does that mean Texans with these afflictions now also qualify for a freeze on their local property taxes?” asks García. “If he rules that they – and possibly others facing long-term major illnesses –  do indeed qualify, then I would support such an expansion of the homestead property tax freeze.”

As of Friday, June 17, Abbott had not yet issued an Attorney General Opinion on the possible expansion of the homestead property tax freeze. It can take several months for the issuance of an Attorney General Opinion.

Abbott, who was at the Cimmaron Country Club in Mission on Friday, June 17, as the keynote speaker for the Hispanic Leaders Conference, qualifies for the homestead property tax freeze because he is confined to a wheelchair.

Current freeze protects elderly and permanently-disabled homeowners

Under current Texas law, a homeowner who is 65 years of age or older, or a homeowner who has a permanent physical disability, can qualify for a property tax freeze on their principal homestead when they pay their annual school property taxes.

The existing property tax freeze must be offered by all school districts in Texas to homeowners who are age 65 years and older or who have a permanent physical disability.

In many other situations, a homeowner who is 65 years of age or older, or a homeowner who has a permanent physical disability, can qualify for a property tax freeze on their principal homestead when they pay their annual city, county and community college district taxes.

In all of these situations, the qualified homeowner still must pay property taxes every year, but under most circumstances, those taxes will never increase.

The cities of Edinburg and McAllen, along with Hidalgo County and South Texas Community College, are among the many South Texas governmental entities – in addition to all public school districts – which currently offer the property tax freeze to elderly homeowners and homeowners with permanent disabilities.

But a change a few years ago in the Americans with Disabilities Act – a federal law that provides protections for disabled Americans – could mean that homeowners with diabetes, cancer, and several other major illnesses may also qualify for the Texas property tax freeze.

Texas adult diabetic population now at more than two million

In her request to Abbott for an Attorney General Opinion – dated January 4, 2011 – Gonzáles said that the change to that federal law, known as the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, “has expanded the definition of a disability to include persons with diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and other illnesses that can be controlled by medications and other treatments, according to federal lawmakers and published reports of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.

“For the large number of Texas homeowners who struggle financially with the medical costs to deal with these major illnesses, your decision would have a major and far-reaching effect,” Gonzáles noted. “My House District, in particular, would be especially affected due to the high rate of diabetes in the Rio Grande Valley and among the Hispanic population.”

Gonzáles represents House District 41 in the Texas Legislature. House District 41 includes southwest Edinburg, north and east McAllen, northeast Mission, Palmhurst and Alton.

According to Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who serves as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services, there are an estimated two million Texan adults with diabetes, and that number could mushroom to eight million Texan adults by the year 2040. Today, many other Texans have pre-diabetes or diabetes but have not been diagnosed with the disease.

Texas’ new cancer cases approaching 100,00 a year

The Austin American Statesman, in an April 3 story on cancer in Texas, quoted a February 2010 report published by the Texas Cancer Registry, which found that “although cancer rates (the number of new cases per 100,000 people) have been declining in recent years, the number of new cancer cases has been rising because of ‘the increasing size and aging of the Texas population.’”

According to the Cancer Registry – which the newspaper explained “is a collaboration between the Texas Department of Health Services, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas – there were 95,607 new cancer cases in Texas in 2007, the most recent data available. That’s an increase of 3.6 percent from the year before.”

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, multiple sclerosis (or MS) is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another, the organization reports.

Epilepsy is a medical condition that produces seizures affecting a variety of mental and physical functions. It’s also called a seizure disorder, according to The Epilepsy Foundation, which further explains: When a person has two or more unprovoked seizures, they are considered to have epilepsy. Seizures can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. They can have many symptoms, from convulsions and loss of consciousness to some that are not always recognized as seizures by the person experiencing them or by health care professionals: blank staring, lip smacking, or jerking movements of arms and legs. A seizure happens when a brief, strong surge of electrical activity affects part or all of the brain. One in 10 adults will have a seizure during their life.

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Following successful first session as lawmaker, Rep. Muñoz honored by Democratic Caucus

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Fresh off a successful first session that included the passage of 18 major bills and one amendment bearing his name – including measures that provided $630,000 for a bachelor’s degree program at South Texas College, will reduce high school dropout rates, punish human traffickers and sexual predators, protect private property rights, and reduce the growing health and safety problems caused by roadside vendors – Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, has been honored by his Democratic colleagues for his legislative achievements.

Muñoz on Monday, May 30 – on Sine Die (the last day of the regular session) – earned the inaugural House Democratic Leader’s Award from Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, the chair of the 49-member House Democratic Caucus.

The award is given to the House Democratic freshman who best symbolizes the principles and values of the Texas House Democratic Caucus.

During the five-month legislative session, Muñoz authored, coauthored, sponsored and cosponsored more than 60 bills and one amendment – including 25 measures approved by the full House that honored major achievements by constituents in his House District 36.

Many of his successful legislative proposals had statewide impact as he worked with Democrats and Republicans on new laws with his name that will improve the delivery of food assistance programs to the working poor, promote economic development along the Texas border with Mexico, and help universities, public libraries, and not-for-profit health centers save an estimated $100 million annually by requiring telecommunication giants in Texas to provide them access to high-speed Internet services at a tremendous rate discount.

One example of his ability to work with lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle came with the passage of his amendment to House Bill 1 – the state budget bill – that restored funding for South Texas College’s Bachelor of Applied Technology (BAT) program. The amendment restores $630,000 for the next two-year budget to the STC program, one of only three such programs in the state.

“I was proud to give Sergio the very first House Democratic Leader’s Award” said

Farrar. “He had a real trial by fire in this Legislature, serving as a freshman with a $27 billion budget shortfall hanging over our heads. He fought for his district, though, and all of Hidalgo County, every chance he could. I look forward to working side-by-side with him in future legislative sessions.”

The first-year lawmaker, who is an attorney by profession, expressed his appreciation for the Democratic Caucus’ honor, and thanked his fellow Valley lawmakers in the House and in the Senate for their advice and help.

“Our Valley legislative delegation is a tremendously skilled and accomplished group, highly respected both by their allies and adversaries, and they were outstanding mentors and teachers to me,” said Muñoz. “You can’t effectively learn the Texas legislative process without people sharing their wisdom, ideas, and influence with you. The Valley legislative delegation definitely looks after their own, and I appreciate it very much.”

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Congressman Cuellar: “Valley veterans one step closer to having full-service VA Hospital”

By JOSÉ BORJON

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, has included legislation in the fiscal year 2012 Military Construction and Veterans funding bill that would bring South Texas one step closer to having a full-service VA hospital. The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, June 15, by a  vote of 411 to 5.

“Our veterans have served our country with great distinction and honor and we owe it to them to have a full-service VA hospital in south Texas,” Cuellar said. “This legislation allows us to place the project on a high-priority list. This is a big step, but it is also long overdue. I will continue to work hard until the health care needs of our veterans are met.”

Cuellar’s legislation calls for the expansion of veterans’ health care access and urges the VA Administration to prioritize the construction of a VA hospital in south Texas by placing it on the VA Strategic Capital Improvement Plan, designed to place the project on a priority list. Additionally, Cuellar has introduced a bill to expand the existing VA health care center in Harlingen to provide in-patient care, urgent care services and a full range of services for women veterans as well as other support  services.

In the bill, Cuellar indicated the veterans’ community in south Texas in rapidly growing and that a need for adequate health care exists in the region. Presently, veterans wanting to receive care from a VA hospital have to travel approximately five hours to the Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio.

Earlier this year, the VA opened a new $40 million health center in Harlingen to accommodate the needs of south Texas veterans. The health center, which offers outpatient care, is a first step toward full-service health care to the region.

The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs funding bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.

In a related event, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Tuesday, June 8, issued the following statement after the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing to consider his legislation, S. 396, the “Meeting the Inpatient Health Care Needs of Far South Texas Veterans Act,” cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

This legislation would require the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs to incorporate a full-service inpatient health care facility into the existing South Texas Veterans Affairs Health Care Center in Harlingen.

“Today’s committee hearing is an important step in the right direction. While it is unfortunate that the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to ignore the documented need for a full-scale inpatient VA facility in South Texas, I’m encouraged that the committee has considered my bill and hopeful they will allow it to advance toward consideration by the full Senate.

“Too many veterans in South Texas have waited too long for a VA inpatient facility in their region to become a reality. They deserve better. I remain committed to making sure these men and women finally have access to the inpatient services they deserve.”

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JoAnn Gama of McAllen appointed by President Obama to President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics

President Barack Obama announced on Thursday, May 26, his appointment of individuals, including JoAnn Gama of McAllen, to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Gama is Chief of Schools at IDEA Public Schools, which she co-founded in 1998 as an academy, and after receiving a state charter, opened IDEA as an independent charter school in August, 2000.

The commission, made up of civic and education leaders from across the country, is charged with providing input and advice on the development, implementation and coordination of education policy and programs that impact the Hispanic community.

Obama established the commission in 2010 as part of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, which was launched in 1990 by then-President George H.W. Bush. The initiative aims to expand educational opportunities and improve education outcomes for the Hispanic community.

“The extraordinary dedication these men and women bring to their new roles will greatly serve the American people,” said Obama. “I am grateful they have agreed to serve in this Administration and I look forward to working with them in the months and years to come.”

Since IDEA Public Schools’ launch, Gama has served as principal and chief operating officer. In 1997, she joined Teach For America in Donna, where she taught 4th and 5th grade English as a Second Language. Gama earned her B.A. from Boston University and her M.ED. in Educational Leadership from the University of Texas-Pan American.

The commission will chart ways to increase Hispanic educational attainment, which is important for the country’s economy, said Juan Sepúlveda, director for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellent for Hispanics.

“The commission will identify ways to strengthen our country. Hispanic students have graduated at lower rates than the rest of the population for years, making America’s progress impossible if they continue to lag behind,” said Sepúlveda. “Strengthening and improving educational excellence in this community isn’t just a Hispanic problem. It’s a challenge for our entire country.”

In addition to Gama, the president appointed Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., the chancellor of the University of Texas System, and Ricardo Romo, president of the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“I am honored President Obama has appointed me to serve on this important panel as it works to improve the quality of the educational experience for millions of American students,” Cigarroa said. “The U.S. Hispanic population is rising quickly, and it is imperative that its students are sufficiently trained to keep America’s workforce vibrant. I look forward to working with my fellow commissioners as we address issues and craft policies that benefit education in America.”

Other individuals appointed to the commission include Eduardo J. Padrón (chair) and César Conde of Florida; Sylvia Acevedo of Texas; Darline P. Robles and Patricia Gándara of California; Alicia Abella and Marta Tienda of New Jersey.; Luis R. Fraga of Washington; María Neira and Lisette Nieves of New York.; Daniel Cardinali of Virginia; Manny Sánchez of Illinois; and Alfredo J. Artiles of Arizona.

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“Operation Sitting Duck” results in fraud charges against 32 South Texas residents

By ANGELA DODGE

“Operation Sitting Duck,” an ongoing investigation into fraudulent insurance claims filed with the American Family Life Assurance Company (AFLAC), has resulted in the return of eight separate but related sealed indictments, charges of conspiracy and wire fraud and the arrest of 32 South Texas residents for their alleged involvement in a scheme to defraud AFLAC of millions of dollars by allegedly filing false injury claims, United States Attorney José Ángel Moreno announced on Friday, June 17, along with Special Agent-in-Charge Cory B. Nelson of the FBI San Antonio field office.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.

“Simply put, this fraud scheme is a robbery without a gun of the self-insured American taxpayer,” said Nelson, “and as such, the FBI considers it to be a direct threat to the critical U.S. health care infrastructure designed to be available for Americans in their time of medical need.”

According to the indictments, which were returned under seal on Tuesday, June 14, the defendants – who include a local police officer, county employees and school teachers  – purchased policies under the AFLAC Accident-Only Insurance Plan from several area insurance agents at various times beginning in July 2001. Under the plan, a policyholder could file a claim with AFLAC and obtain a cash benefit if he or she received treatment from a physician for a legitimate, accident-caused injury including lacerations, bruises, burns, fractures or dismemberment.

“Greed, simple and pure, has allegedly driven a police officer, teachers, county government employees and others to participate in a multi-million dollar insurance fraud,” said Moreno. “That same greed now makes them participants in our criminal justice system and subject to participation in our prison rehabilitation system. Insurance fraud affects every legitimate provider and beneficiary of our healthcare system, and we will vigorously pursue those who seek to profit illegally from it.”

The indictments allege that, from July 2001 through April 2010, the defendant policyholders routinely delivered lists of fake accidents and injuries to two physicians who worked together at a clinic in Reynosa.

The physicians allegedly prepared an “accident report” for each fake injury in exchange for a cash kickback of approximately $15 per accident report. In each report, the indictment alleges the physicians falsely claimed they had provided treatment and prescribed medication for the purported injury.

In addition, the physicians and defendants allegedly attempted to conceal their scheme in numerous ways including agreeing to use injuries such as lacerations and minor burns as opposed to more serious injuries that paid higher cash benefits and could potentially attract a greater level of scrutiny by AFLAC’s claims department.

Over time, the defendants – many of whom allegedly recruited one another to purchase policies and join the alleged scheme – submitted approximately 21,600 allegedly false and fraudulent insurance claims, each accompanied by the physicians’ accident reports, to AFLAC’s claims department in Columbus, Ga. Based on the claims, AFLAC disbursed a total of approximately $3 million in insurance proceeds to the defendants.

Each count of conspiracy and wire fraud carries a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison without parole, a $250,000 fine and mandatory restitution.

The indictments listed below have been unsealed as to each of the following defendants who were arrested by FBI agents on Thursday, June 16, and Friday, June 17:

Indictment No. 1

• María C. Alaniz, 39, of Elsa;

• Lucila Alcalá, 40, of Edinburg;

• Steven Betancourt, 39, of Edinburg;

• Rebecca Castillo, 41, of Edinburg;

• Dalia Cerda-Delgado, 39, of Palmview;

• Patricia Cerda-Flores, 44, of Palmview;

• María Guzmán, 40, of Edinburg;

• Lilly Pérez, 32, of La Villa;

• Desiree Rodríguez, 34, of Edinburg;

• José D. Rodríguez, 27, of Edinburg;

• Leonor B. Salinas, 46, of Elsa;

• Ninfa Reyes, 38, of Edcouch; and

• Noemí Villareal, 60, of Edinburg.

Indictment No. 2

• Eddie Guerra, 34, of Alamo;

• José Guerra, Jr., 37, of La Joya;

• Valerio Ramos, 55, of Edinburg;

• Idaleen Sánchez, 34, of Edinburg; and

• Norma Sánchez, 41, of Edinburg.

Indictment No. 3

• Homer Cedillo, Jr., 41, of Edinburg;

• Mary Cedillo, 65, of Edinburg;

• Anissa Chávez, 31, of McAllen;

• Candida Chávez, 34, of McAllen;

• Lori Chávez, 30, of McAllen;

• Martha Ortega, 57, of McAllen; and

• Yolanda Segovia, 55, of McAllen.

Indictment No. 4

• Georgina Flores, 33, of Mission;

• Norma Flores, 54, of Palmview; and

Nora Palacios, 53, of La Joya.

Indictment No. 5

• María Cantú, 56, of McAllen; and

• Nancy Rodríguez, 31, of Pharr;

Indictment No. 6

• Beatriz Carreón, 42, of Edinburg.

Indictment No. 7

• Minerva Murguía, 43, of Sullivan City.

The defendants have either made or are awaiting an initial appearance before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in McAllen federal court and either have or are expected to be ordered released on bond pending trial. Four indictments as of Friday, June 17, remained partially sealed and warrants remain outstanding for others charged but as yet not in federal custody.

The ongoing investigation is being conducted by the McAllen office of the FBI. Assistant United States Attorney Greg Saikin is prosecuting the cases.

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House District 36 lands $7 million in federal funds for rural development projects

By DAVID A.DÍAZ

Almost $7.1 million in federal money to pay for a wastewater treatment plant, a fire station, and a loan program for small businesses in the cities of Hidalgo, Alton and Palmview, respectively, were announced on Thursday, May 19, in the Mission legislative center that houses the district offices of Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Mission, and Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen.

“Our concerted efforts continue to pay off,” Muñoz said. “These important projects will help many of my constituents in House District 36 with the resources that will result in improved public safety, public health and economic development, as these three cities continue to grow and prosper.”

Muñoz, who is in Austin for the final weeks of the regular session of the Texas Legislature, thanked Cuellar for the congressman’s continuing and effective support for South Texas, including working with the state legislative delegation and local elected leaders on this latest round of federal funding.

“In order to best serve our constituents, especially in our smaller cities, there has to be a strong partnership from city hall all the way to the halls of the Texas Capitol and Congress,” said Muñoz. “When we approach these funding sources with a united front, it solidifies our goals and make it more difficult for a federal or state agency to deny us money for which we are qualified.”

Cuellar, whose congressional district includes portions of Muñoz’ state House District 36 and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa’s Senate District 20, shared Muñoz’ assessments of how U.S. and Texas government agencies often decide whether or not to fund key projects at the local levels.

“One of the things that federal agencies look at is what sort of support they have in the local communities,” said Cuellar, himself a longtime state representative before he was elected to Congress. “If (local projects) have the support of the state legislators such as Rep. Muñoz and Sen. Hinojosa, that helps a lot.”

The money is being provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, whose financial programs support such essential public facilities and services as water and sewer systems, housing, health clinics, emergency service facilities and electric and telephone service, Muñoz added.

“When local communities reach out for federal assistance, we make their requests a top priority. When we can take significant steps such as this to increase public safety, improve infrastructure and create jobs, every family in the area benefits,” Cuellar said.

The City of Hidalgo will receive $5,975,000 in federal funds to construct a new 1.5 million gallons per day wastewater treatment plant. The new plant will be located adjacent to the existing wastewater treatment plant and will increase total capacity to 2.7 million gallons per day.

The City of Alton will receive $1,000,000 in federal funds for the construction of a new fire station. Repairing the current fire station, which is too small to serve the growing community, would not be cost effective. The new fire station will be centrally located and will house first responder personnel 24 hours a day seven days a week. The station will also have bays with easy access to vehicles and fire trucks that can get to main thoroughfares quickly, allowing for faster response times.

The City of Palmview will receive a grant of $121,275 to begin a Revolving Loan Fund to aid small and emerging businesses. Under the program, a loan is made to a small business and as repayments are made, funds become available for new loans for other businesses. The goal of the loan program is to increase economic development and create one full time job for every $25,000 loaned. Some potential recipients that have expressed interest and qualify include: a bakery, an adult daycare center and a road side service business.

“Facility upgrades and new business development are essential items needed for the sustainability of growing rural communities,” said USDA Rural Development State Director Paco Valentín. “USDA Rural Development is pleased to offer funding for these services and projects that will increase the quality of life for residents of Hidalgo County.

José Borjon contributed to this article.

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Rep. Peña receives Teddy Roosevelt Leadership Award from McAllen Chamber of Commerce

Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, was presented with the Teddy Roosevelt Award by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon on Thursday, June 2. Peña was honored by the chamber for his bold leadership in what many have called the toughest legislative session in recent memory.

“I know Rep. Peña is a student of history and counts Teddy Roosevelt as a personal hero,” said Steve Ahlenius, President of the McAllen Chamber. “That is why it is so fitting to present him with this award. Rep. Peña has exhibited those iconic Teddy Roosevelt values of grit, bold leadership and dogged determination not only during this tough legislative session but throughout his career.”

Reconciling the budget with billions less in revenue dominated the legislative session. Controversial policies regarding illegal immigration became largely non-issues. Funding for public safety and border security initiatives remained a state priority. Peña played an integral role in the passage of election integrity and anti-voter fraud legislation.

“Recognition from the business and community leaders of the McAllen chamber means a lot to me,” said Peña. “Steve and the chamber have been a great resource in giving us some guidance this tough legislative session. I want to thank them for their hard work and for this very special award.”

Davis Rankin, a business and community leader in Hidalgo County, praised Peña for his vision and commitment to public service. “The Rio Grande Valley needs courageous people of all political affiliations to serve. Aaron is right to see that our community is changing and we need to be able to change with it.”

Peña once again played a leadership role this legislative session, chairing the House Committee on Technology. He also served on the House Committees on Homeland Security and Public Safety, Redistricting and the Select Committee on Voter Identification and Voter Fraud.

Peña was elected the Chairman of the Hispanic Republican Conference of Texas. He is the dean of the Hidalgo County House delegation, completing his fifth legislative session.

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919), a Republican, was the 26th President of the United States (1901-1909). He is noted for his energetic personality, range of interests and achievements, leadership of the Progressive Movement and his “cowboy” image and robust personality. Roosevelt’s achievements as a naturist, explorer, hunter, author and soldier are as much a part of his fame as any office he held as a politician.

One of Roosevelt’s most famous quotes follows:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

The McAllen Chamber of Commerce, including more than 2,000 members, is committed to helping power the economy of South Texas, works to retain and attract jobs and investment to the region and partners with regional businesses to help them expand and grow. The chamber represents business throughout the city of McAllen and all of South Texas.

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Hidalgo County promotes preparedness for active Atlantic 2011 hurricane season

By KARINA CARDOZA

June 1 marked the beginning of this year’s hurricane season, which is expected to be an active one.

Hidalgo County has been taking the necessary steps to be ready in the event a storm should threaten our area, and county officials encourage all residents to do the same.

This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecasts an above-average Atlantic hurricane season with a 70% chance of 12-18 named storms, 6-10 of which could become hurricanes, and three to six of those major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5).

After recent years of busy tropical activity along the Gulf Coast, Hidalgo County residents need not look too far back in the past to remember the destruction and devastation caused by localized and river flooding throughout the county. The arrival of Hurricane Dolly in 2008 and the impact of Hurricane Alex and subsequent Tropical Storm Hermine in 2010 left homes and property in low-lying areas destroyed and damaged, with the community still recuperating from the effects of these dramatic events.

“We can look at lessons learned as a community from past events to prepare for future occurrences,” said Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García. “We learned that regional cooperation was critical, that improving our drainage was a priority, that effective communication in relaying information to our residents was paramount, and that preparedness was key.”

Óscar Montoya, the county’s Emergency Management Coordinator, agreed.

“As we begin this year’s hurricane season, the County’s message is one of personal empowerment – residents are encouraged to analyze how they were affected by past events, and to make appropriate preparations accordingly,” said Montoya.

Hidalgo County is taking several proactive measures to prepare itself and residents for a hurricane or severe flooding which often occurs during the summer months by taking the necessary steps to make sure that its response mechanisms are in place, its infrastructure is ready, and its residents are prepared and informed.

County improves drainage infrastructure

Over the last few years, Hidalgo County has made great strides to its drainage infrastructure to meet the needs of the growing region. Lessons learned have helped Hidalgo County to anticipate effects of a hurricane on our area and to implement innovative measures to mitigate flooding.

Through a joint effort between the International Boundary Water Commission (IBWC), the Hidalgo County Drainage District #1, and Hidalgo County, more than $350 million were invested to make significant improvements to the levee and drainage systems. These improvements proved critical during last summer’s Rio Grande River flooding after Hurricane Alex. The county is also doing preparedness maintenance to interior drainage ditches to remove obstructions and brush that could impede proper drainage.

Residents also must be prepared

County officials also are urging South Texas residents to make sure they have done as much as possible to protect themselves, their families, and their homes.

Personal empowerment through preparedness is the message county leaders wish to reiterate to residents. Now is the time for residents to discuss and devise a plan with their families. Disasters can strike quickly and sometimes without warning. Families may not be together in the same place when they happen, so it is important to plan for a disaster in advance, such as how to communicate with each other, where to go and what to do in different emergency situations.

If residents reside in a flood-prone area and have seen prior evidence of flooding during such events, arrangements should be made to seek alternate shelter in the event of a storm. Now is the time to make a kit. When a hurricane nears, stores are likely to run low on supplies. Stock up on key essentials now.

Pets should be part of residents’ overall hurricane preparation plans.

For detailed information on making a plan, visit http://www.texasprepares.org.

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Gov. Perry declares August 6 “Day of Prayer and Fasting” for challenges facing America

Gov.  Rick Perry has proclaimed Saturday, August 6, as a Day of Prayer and Fasting for the nation to seek God’s guidance and wisdom in addressing the challenges that face our communities, states and nation. He has invited governors across the country to join him on August 6 in Houston to participate in The Response, a non-denominational, apolitical, Christian  prayer meeting hosted by the American Family Association at Reliant Stadium.

According to its website, the American Family Association (AFA) is a non-profit 501(c3) organization was founded in 1977 by Donald E. Wildmon, who was pastoring First United Methodist Church in Southaven, Mississippi, at the time. Since 1977, AFA has been on the frontlines of America’s culture war. The original name of the ministry was National Federation for Decency but was changed to American Family Association (AFA) in 1988.

Perry also urged fellow governors to issue similar proclamations encouraging their constituents to pray that day for unity and righteousness for our states, nation and mankind.

“Given the trials that beset our nation and world, from the global economic downturn to natural disasters, the lingering danger of terrorism and continued debasement of our culture, I believe it is time to convene the  leaders from each of our United States in a day of prayer and fasting, like

that described in the book of Joel,” Perry said. “I urge all Americans of faith to pray on that day for the healing of our country, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of enduring values as our guiding force.”

Over the years, Perry has participated in events hosted by various faith traditions. His call to prayer on August 6 is a non-denominational, apolitical, Christian prayer service to seek forgiveness, healing and blessing for our country.

For more information about The Response, please visit http://theresponseusa.com/.

To view the proclamation, please visit http://governor.state.tx.us/news/proclamation/16247/.

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RGV Stonewall Democrats condemn Gov. Perry’s affiliation with American Family Association

By RICARDO CONTRERAS

On August 6, Gov. Rick Perry will host a “Day of Prayer and Fasting” in conjunction with one of the nation’s leading anti-gay groups, the American Family Association (AFA). The Rio Grande Valley (RGV) Stonewall Democrats condemn the governor’s decision to affiliate with the AFA, whose main objectives – according to the Stonewall Democrats – has been to discourage equality and attack the LGBT community and other members of American society.

LGBT is an acronym (initials) for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“Gov. Perry’s partnership with AFA, a bona fide hate group, is an insult to all citizens in this great State of Texas who work daily to fight hatred and advocate for tolerance and justice,” said Eli Olivarez, RGV Stonewall president. “We are appalled at the governor’s utter lack of shame and disrespect for his constituency and demand that he prohibit AFA from participating in this event.”

The event drew recent criticism from other organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Council on American-Islamic Relations for statements from one of the AFA’s executives, who reportedly stated that Jews, Muslims, atheists or any other non-Christians would “go to Hell” unless they accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.

The mission of the Stonewall Democrats is to educate the community and involve them in the political process; mobilize the community to get out the vote to elect more pro-equality and fair-minded Democrats; and to stand up to attacks not only to the LGBT community but all families and their civil rights.

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UT-Pan American forming Center for Bilingual Studies to examine bilingual communities

By JENNIFER BERGHOM

Having lived in Mexico and the United States, Sylvia Verdooren has seen firsthand the benefits and challenges from learning two languages at the same time.

Verdooren, a master’s student in the education administration program at The University of Texas-Pan American and a first-grade teacher at Escandón Elementary School in Edinburg, said she has many students in her class whose primary language is Spanish and who are learning English.

“Everything I say, I say in both languages,” Verdooren said.

Verdooren said it is really important for her to understand the challenges her students who are English language learners face in school and be sympathetic to their needs and apprehension in school.

“It’s really hard for them to cope at the beginning, so I think the language itself, the fact that we speak their language and that we can teach them in the language (they speak) helps the student,” she said

By the end of the school year, her Spanish-dominant students have strengthened their English skills and her English-dominant students have learned some Spanish.

Recognizing the Rio Grande Valley’s uniqueness of having most of its inhabitants speaking two languages, UTPA is forming the Center for Bilingual Studies to examine bilingual communities and how they are shaping the future of the country. The center awaits final approval from The University of Texas System before it becomes official.

The center is an interdisciplinary endeavor, with faculty from different colleges within the university collaborating on research and other activities to better understand bilingual families and the communities in which they live.

Deans and faculty members from some of the university’s colleges developed the idea for a center to address and consolidate research they had been conducting regarding the Valley and its inhabitants, said Dr. Francisco Guajardo, associate professor of educational leadership.

While bilingual education plays an important role in the center, the center itself is not just about bilingual education. Faculty and others involved in the center will also be studying the literature, arts, politics, health care and other facets of bilingual culture, Guajardo said.

“What this is, is really a center that will study all the issues that are important for bilingual children, bilingual families, (and) bilingual communities. So that’s all encompassing enough to really suggest this is a center that will study the area,” he said. “In a nutshell, what we want to do with this center is have the university community be intimately engaged in community life, and we want the community outside of the university to be engaged as well in university life.”

Guajardo said he and others involved in the endeavor hope the center will serve as a resource for other institutions, as well as for those creating public policy.

“We tend to not be at the table (when policy is discussed), but we want to be at the table; the way to be at the table is by knowing the community well,” he said.

The center will enable the university to have research including issues regarding bilingualism, the economy, housing, health and health care available from one location, he said.

In April, the university hosted its first conference that included participants from UTPA, local school districts and members of the community. The two-day conference included panel discussions involving educators and community members talking about their experiences in working in bilingual areas and breakout sessions where participants discussed ways to better study and serve the community.

Participants also learned about the history of bilingual education in Texas from Dr. José Ruiz-Escalante, UTPA professor of curriculum and instruction and president of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

Dr. Héctor Ochoa, dean of UTPA’s College of Education, said one of his goals since he became dean four years ago was to address and bring to the forefront issues of bilingual education.

That’s why, he said, he is grateful to fellow deans and faculty members, as well as UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen, for sharing his vision in creating a center for excellence that takes a multidisciplinary approach to studying bilingualism.

“The rest of the country is beginning to look like we’ve been all along, if we look at the demographics,” Ochoa said. “And having consulted in 19 other states, I am convinced that this (bilingual studies) is a very critical area. Many people are asking for help and need help, and very few universities have the critical mass and intellectual talent and capacity that UTPA has to help address those answers.”

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Harlingen man sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for defrauding Valley Baptist Hospital of almost $4 million

By ANGELA DODGE

Michael N. Swetnam Jr., 47, of Harlingen, on Thursday, June 9, was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for his role in a scheme to defraud Valley Baptist Hospital in Harlingen of more than $3.8 million by selling nonexistent and altered insurance policies, United States Attorney José Ángel Moreno announced.

At a hearing early June 9 in Houston, Judge Keith P. Ellison sentenced Swetnam to the prison term to be followed by a three-year-term of supervised release and further ordered him to pay Valley Baptist $2,950,301 in restitution.

The sentence was imposed on each of the three counts of mail fraud a jury found Swetnam guilty of committing and will be served concurrently. The jury returned their verdicts on May 3, 2010.

Ellison also signed an order forfeiting Swetnam’s interest in a home in Los Fresnos that he paid off using proceeds of the fraud. Swetnam will be permitted to remain on bond pending the issuance of a court order to surrender to a Bureau of Prisons facility to be designated in the near future where he will serve his sentence.

Swetnam’s fraud scheme involved selling the hospital both nonexistent windstorm policies and excess liability policies with premium amounts Swetnam altered after receiving the policies from the insurer. Swetnam engaged in this conduct for the policy years 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, which resulted in Valley Baptist being defrauded of approximately $3.8 million.

The evidence at trial showed that Swetnam was a licensed insurance broker in the Brownsville area, who had a long-standing relationship with Valley Baptist – a nonprofit that is the largest provider of medical services in South Texas.

The jury heard testimony that Swetnam traveled to Mexico with Valley Baptist representatives in August 2006 where the hospital was given hurricane insurance cover notes in the company names of Arial Re, Landsdow and Lloyd’s of London. But the insurance never existed. A government official from the British Virgin Islands testified that Arial Re and Landsdow were non-existent companies and a lawyer from the BVI testified that his name was forged on the cover notes. Swetnam again sold Valley Baptist a nonexistent windstorm policy, supposedly from an offshore company, in 2007.

During this same time period, Swetnam also altered an excess liability policy from Zurich to increase the premium by $1 million after the Zurich representative had signed the declaration page. Swetnam then transmitted the declaration page along with a bill for the inflated amount to Valley Baptist, which paid the higher premium because the altered document made it look like this was the premium Zurich was charging. Swetnam then received the inflated payment from Valley Baptist and forwarded the actual premium to Zurich, pocketing the extra million for himself and his partners.

The United States Postal Inspection Service with the assistance of the Texas Department of Insurance investigated the case leading to the federal charges. Assistant United States Attorneys Ryan D. McConnell and Gregg Costa tried the case. Assistant United States Attorney Kristine Rollinson handled the asset forfeiture aspect of the case.

••••••

UnitedHealthcare, RGV Hispanic Chamber and Lone Star Insurance Services to host seminar featuring Healthy Texas state health insurance

UnitedHealthcare, the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Lone Star Insurance Services on Thursday, June 23, will host a seminar for small-business owners on Healthy Texas, a statewide health initiative to offer affordable health insurance to small-business employees and their families.

The seminar, scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., will be held at Lone Star National Bank, 520 E. Nolana, Suite 110, in McAllen. Registration begins at 8 a.m. The seminar will feature Darrell Been, director of small business sales at UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual, who will explain the program, its benefits and how to apply.

UnitedHealthcare has been selected to provide insurance plans for Healthy Texas, an employer-based, public-private health insurance program offered by the Texas Department of Insurance.

Healthy Texas uses state and federal funding to make it more affordable for qualifying small employers to offer health care benefits to their employees. Premiums for Healthy Texas products are on average 25- to 30-percent lower than commercial market plans.

“Keeping your employees healthy is a big part of a successful business,” said Cynthia Sakulenzki, president of the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Healthy Texas is a great opportunity for those small businesses who previously couldn’t afford to offer their employees health insurance plans. We hope our small-business community takes advantage of this wonderful insurance program.”

To R.S.V.P for the event, call the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at 956/928-0060.

For more information on UnitedHealthcare’s Healthy Texas product, visit:

http://www.healthytexasuhc.com.

About UnitedHealthcare

UnitedHealthcare is dedicated to helping people nationwide live healthier lives by simplifying the health care experience, meeting consumer health and wellness needs, and sustaining trusted relationships with care providers.

The company offers the full spectrum of health benefit programs for individuals, employers and Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, and contracts directly with more than 650,000 physicians and care professionals and 5,000 hospitals nationwide.

UnitedHealthcare serves more than 38 million people and is one of the businesses of UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH), a diversified Fortune 50 health and well-being company.

••••••

First graduates with Mexican American Studies certificate celebrate historic moment

By GAIL FAGAN

Vania Barrera was all set to graduate from The University of Texas-Pan American in December 2010 with her master’s degree in sociology. However, the chance to gain a better awareness of her own identity as well as the community’s intervened.

Barrera, who moved from Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico at age 3 to Roma, delayed her graduation to May 2011 to pick up the extra hours required to earn a graduate certificate in Mexican American Studies (MAS), which provided her a unique opportunity to gain specialized knowledge and do interdisciplinary research focusing on the Mexican American experience.

“I learned more about my Mexican American culture, our hopes, our struggles and our victories, the places we have been in, how we got here and where we can be,” said the 29-year-old who plans to be a college professor.

Barrera was one of nine in the first group of graduate students who obtained the certificate, which was approved and first offered in spring 2010 at the university. To earn the certificate, a student must already be admitted to a graduate program at UTPA and take 12 hours of course work in Mexican American Studies from any discipline with no more than six hours in any one subject.

The courses range across many disciplines of study – anthropology, English, art, sociology and others – with many course offerings that include Border Music of South Texas, Language in Health Services, and the Sociology of Poverty, to name a few.

At a recent graduation symposium and celebration, Barrera joined other students who presented their research to faculty and University administrators on a MAS-related topic, a final project requirement to complete the certificate. Barrera’s topic: Undocumented Mexican Youth in Higher Education in the United States: Looking Beyond their Social and Legal Limitations.

“The most important thing I learned through this project was that undocumented students have the exact same hopes and dreams as their documented peers except their path to reaching them is full of more obstacles. I was amazed with their persistence, dedication and positive contributions to our community,” she said.

Other Spring 2011 MAS certificate graduates and their research included: Lucas Espinoza, The Roots of Chicana Feminism: Resistance and Transformation; Dennis Garza, Hegemonic Masculinity in Luis Valdéz’ Zoot Suit; Orquidea Morales, Re-casting La Llorona: Slashers, Virgins and Feminism in the Wailer: La Llorona; Karmin San Martín, La participación y representacióde la mujer chicana durante y después del Teatro Campesino; Verónica Sandoval, Lady Mariposa, Creative Borderlands: Using Anthropology for New Narratives; Rodrigo Cano, Attitudes Towards Language in a Border City; Milena Melo, Access to Healthcare for Undocumented Citizens in the Rio Grande Valley; and Hugo Paz, Journey to Identity: Crossing Boundaries and the Other Side of the Border—Writing for Social Action at L.U.P.E.

Barrera said completion of the certificate has made her more culturally competent and marketable, a goal the certificate program promotes.

“This certificate demonstrates you have this cultural knowledge which can be applied to many fields – journalism, marketing, nursing – in any job, you will have an advantage. If you want to be able to make culturally based decisions in your professional life, your personal life and your social life – that is the key to your success when you are living in a diverse society,” said Dr. Stephanie Álvarez, assistant professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature.

Álvarez is part of a group of faculty members that has worked to revise the Mexican American Studies major and minor program at UTPA and pushed to initiate the MAS Graduate Certificate program. She’s delighted that in only its first year, the program is already graduating nine students with the certificate.

“I believe this is a historic moment for UT Pan American and the Mexican American Studies Program and we need to celebrate it,” Álvarez said.

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Congressman Rubén Hinojosa announces $350,000 HUD grant for UT-Pan American

By PATRICIA GUILLERMO

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, has announced that a $350,000 grant was awarded to the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for their Community Engagement program through OneCPD.

“UTPA’s Community Engagement program is a national model for economic and community development that has assisted so many of our residents who are looking to improve their communities, their businesses and their homes”, said Hinojosa. “This grant will help others learn how to assess their local markets, and how to leverage resources that will directly impact many areas of the Rio Grande Valley.”

OneCPD is HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development’s new cross-program technical assistance effort, designed to help CPD grantees carry out comprehensive and sustainable “place-based” development and revitalization strategies.

The Community Engagement program at UTPA has provided education, training and professional expertise to RGV residents since 1987.

••••••

UTPA art foundry receives donation from Edinburg Volunteer Fire Department

By JENNIFER BERGHOM

Magdiel “Fonzi” Alfonso meticulously sprinkled a white plaster mixture over the clay bust of Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Army Sgt. José López before carefully covering it with a fiber for added protection. The mold will go through a series of processes before it shapes about 200 pounds of bronze into a statue.

That’s when Alfonso and a team of other artists at The University of Texas-Pan American’s art foundry art will need to take serious precautions, as the bronze being poured into the mold can reach 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It feels like you have a hot iron on your skin,” Alfonso, who graduated from UTPA in May with a bachelor of fine arts degree and continues to work with the university’s art department, said about getting close to the foundry.

The artists wear protective clothing to avoid injury, but the foundry’s supplies were limited — until now.
The Edinburg Volunteer Fire Department donated six sets of protective helmets, jackets, pants and gloves to the foundry to keep artists safe when working with the molten metal.

Shawn Snider, the fire department’s chief, said the gear is no longer useable by firefighters to enter burning buildings, but is safe for the artists to use when working in the foundry.

“I think for the intended purpose here, which is to protect students who are learning a trade and a craft in a university setting, it is more than appropriate and is very good use of equipment that otherwise would be destroyed,” Snider said. “I’m really happy they have a use for it.”

This is the first time the department has donated old gear to the university, but it has given items to volunteer firefighters in Mexico before, Snider said.

The art department has some fire-resistant clothing, but those articles of clothing are old. The fire department’s old gear is much more effective in protecting the artists and students when they are pouring the bronze into molds, said Douglas Clark, a master sculptor and lecturer in UTPA’s art department.

“This is much newer and much more comfortable,” Clark said. “It’ll be a great help to us.”

It takes between three and five people to prepare and pour bronze into molds for sculptures, Clark said. The department’s donation will provide protection for more people.

All students are required to view safety videos and perform a “dress rehearsal” of all the equipment before working with the bronze or other metal, Clark said.

Since opening a year and a half ago, the UTPA art foundry has created several sculptures for area birding centers, municipal centers and local and state cemeteries, as well as produced about 100 student sculptures, Clark said.

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Sen. Zaffirini passes 79 bills during recently concluded Texas legislative regular session

By WILL KRUEGER

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, passed 79 bills during the five-month 2011 legislative session, which ended on May 31, bringing her total to 727 since 1987.

Her legislation will strengthen local communities; enhance public safety; reduce wasteful spending; improve educational programs; increase affordability, accountability and excellence in higher education; and promote health and human services for the very young, the very old and persons with disabilities.

“Because of the significant budget shortfall, the 82nd Texas Legislative Session was exceedingly challenging, Zaffirini said. “Despite this and other hurdles, we persevered in making a difference for the families of Senate District 21 and of our great state.”

Her legislative district includes Starr County.

Zaffirini, Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee and Co-Chair of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, passed 30 bills related to higher education.

Enhancing financial aid programs for Texas families is one of Zaffini’s top priorities in the Texas Senate. Her Senate Bill (SB) 28, sponsored by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, reforms the TEXAS Grant program, which has helped thousands of Texas families afford to send their children to college. The bill will prioritize grants for high-achieving, low-income students.

Branch is the Chair of the House Higher Education Committee.

With its multitude of deadlines, the financial aid process can be confusing for families sending a first child to college. SB 851, also by Zaffirini and Branch, creates a single statewide financial aid deadline for all public four-year universities in Texas.

Zaffirini and Branch also collaborated in passing SB 29, which will allow students who are recipients of graduate fellowships to participate in university health insurance programs. The bill will help increase the number of fellowships accepted at Texas colleges and universities and help institutions maximize research funding.

What’s more, House Bill (HB) 2910 by Branch and Zaffirini creates the Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Challenge Scholarship Program, which will promote training in high-tech fields and help ensure the Texas workforce remains competitive in today’s global economy.

SB 5 by Zaffirini and Branch removes unfunded mandates and relieves administrative burdens placed on higher education institutions related to duplicative and unnecessary reports. HB 1000, also by Branch and Zaffirini, continues a multi-session effort to expand and enhance national research universities in Texas by providing a criteria-based incentive and distribution methodology for the National Research University Fund.

Academic advising at universities will be improved by SB 36, which brings academic advisors into the state’s accountability system. Quality academic advising is key to student success, and the bill will help ensure that students are receiving effective, appropriate academic advising from qualified academic advisors. Senator Zaffirini’s bill was sponsored by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.

Accountability also is the focus of Zaffirini’s SB 38, which was passed after being attached to SB 1534 by Sen, Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. The bill brings for-profit and career colleges into the state’s higher education accountability system.

A member of the Health and Human Services Committee since 1987,  Zaffirini always has championed quality care and respectful treatment for persons with disabilities.

Her SB 37, sponsored by Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, authorizes the statutory continuation of the Promoting Independence Advisory Committee. The committee plays a key role in helping Texans with disabilities live in the community or with their families, instead of in costly institutional settings.

SB 41 by Zaffirini and Rep. John Davis, R-Houston, prohibits the use of prone holds, straitjackets and other dangerous, ineffective restraints in state-supported living centers.

The hurtful slur “retarded” is eliminated from state statutes by HB 1481 by Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, and Zaffirini. The bill requires state agencies to use respectful language when referencing persons with disabilities.

HB 3724 by Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, and Zaffirini requires implementation of an early detection plan for prevention, early screening, diagnosis and management of chronic kidney disease.

HB 2904 by Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, and Zaffirini makes the Glenda Dawson Donate Life-Texas Registry a more effective tool in registering citizens of Texas to become organ, tissue and eye donors and reduces the cost to state government of operating the registry.

Protecting children with food allergies is the focus of  Zaffirini’s SB 27. Sponsored in the House by Branch, the bill requires public school systems to adopt guidelines that could help prevent deadly allergic reactions, thereby averting tragedies.

A longtime champion of early childhood education, Zaffirini continued her legislative efforts to ensure wider access to quality childcare.

Her SB 264, sponsored by Guillen, will ensure that parents are informed consumers by requiring local workforce boards to provide them with information about quality child care indicators for each child care provider in the area.

Childcare employee training is enhanced by SB 265 by Zaffirini and Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas.

Zaffirini believes that reading fosters a lifelong love of learning for children of all ages. Accordingly, HB 2139 by Guillen and Zaffirini would establish an Adopt-A-Library program to encourage public and private entities to invest in public libraries throughout Texas.

Public safety is consistently ranked among the top concerns of Texans.

Zaffirini’s SB 250 will help more victims of stalking obtain life-saving protective orders.

She passed her SB 46 as an amendment to HB 242 by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, prohibiting texting-while-driving on Texas roadways.

HB 2138 by Guillen and Zaffirini will enhance the cooperative efforts between game wardens and state military forces in water-related rescues.

Volunteer fire departments play a critical role in protecting rural communities, especially during times of wildfire and drought. SB 1927 by Zaffirini and Rep. John Garza, R-San Antonio, authorizes volunteer firefighters to hold 10 fundraisers a year, thereby allowing departments to raise more funds for equipment, training and travel expenses.

SB 61 and SB 209, authored by Zaffirini and sponsored by Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, will establish minimum guidelines and supervision standards for juvenile case manager.

On Monday, May 30 –  Memorial Day –  Zaffirini said she was especially proud to have worked with local veterans groups to rename portions of State Highways 359, 16 and 285 as the Veterans of the Korean War Memorial Highway. The bill was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo.

Improving government efficiency and eliminating unnecessary spending is another priority addressed by Zaffirini’s legislation. HB 326 by Guillen and Zaffirini requires agencies and departments under sunset review to submit to the legislature the unnecessary and duplicative reports that can be eliminated to save on costs.

“I am grateful for Lt. Governor David Dewhurst’s leadership and for the opportunity to work closely not only with my colleagues in the Senate and the House, but also with local leaders, educators and community and health advocates to develop and pass legislation benefitting SD 21 and our great State of Texas,” she said.

At the beginning of the legislative session, Dewhurst re-appointed Zaffirini Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee and a member of the Senate Finance, Redistricting, Administration and Economic Development Committees. Later in the session, he appointed her Co-Chair, with Branch, of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency. She also serves on the Legislative Budget Board.

The bills passed by Zaffirini have been sent to Gov. Rick Perry for his consideration and approval.

••••••

Three convicted of harboring aliens and importing minor girls for prostitution

By ANGELA DODGE

A McAllen federal jury has convicted Juan Antonio García-Garay, 31, Juan Ignacio Chavarría-Ontiveros, 26, and Antonio Martínez Jr., 38, on all counts charged against them arising from a conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens imported for purposes of prostitution, United States Attorney José Angel Moreno announced on Thursday, June 16.

The jury returned its verdicts late Wednesday afternoon, June 15, after two hours of deliberation and three days of trial.

García-Garay, of Rio Grande City, was found guilty of importing aliens for prostitution, conspiracy to harbor and harboring aliens, while Chavarría-Ontiveros, of Mexico, and Martínez, of Rio Grande City, were both convicted of conspiracy to harbor and harboring illegal aliens.

During trial, the jury heard testimony of a Rio Grande City officer that on March 16, 2011, during a traffic stop the officer encountered the driver, García-Garay, and Chavarría-Ontiveros and a 13-year-old juvenile female as passengers. The officer learned that the juvenile was in the country illegally and contacted Border Patrol (BP).

While asking routine questions of the unaccompanied minor, BP agents learned about the child being used for prostitution purposes. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI) agents were contacted and their investigation identified the 13-year-old and two other females, ages 15 and 18, who were undocumented aliens who had been harbored at two apartments and a house in Rio Grande City.

These juveniles testified that they had been prostitutes in Mexico and García-Garay had asked them to come and work in the United States. They testified he coordinated their travel and that while they were at the apartments and house, they had sex with the defendants and other men. The girls were promised money upon their return to Mexico. Chavarría-Ontiveros, who was armed, acted as a guard at the apartments always looking out the window and Martínez rented the apartments and lived in the home where the juveniles were harbored.

A fourth defendant, Jorge Eutacio Martínez-Mendoza, 46, previously pleaded guilty to the conspiracy to harbor charges and is awaiting sentencing.

All defendants have been in custody since their arrest where they will remain pending sentencing.

The case was investigated by ICE-HSI and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Kimberly Leo and Kristen Rees.

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