SA Councilman testifies in Crystal City public corruption trial

Manny Pelaez made secret recordings of Crystal City attorney, city manager

By Garrett Brnger - Reporter

CRYSTAL CITY, Texas - A new San Antonio City councilman spent his first morning on the job, not with the rest of council on the dais, but on a witness stand in Del Rio, testifying in a public corruption trial against a man he once considered a friend.

"The day he asked me to break federal and state law and do something inappropriate, and the day I realized he was hurting the good people of Crystal City, was the day we stopped being friends," Manny Pelaez said of former Crystal City City Manager and City Attorney James Jonas.

Jonas and the former mayor, Ricardo Lopez, face numerous conspiracy, bribery and fraud charges as the result of an FBI investigation into public corruption in the small South Texas city. One of the bribery charges Jonas faces is over an alleged proposal that caused Pelaez to contact the FBI, surreptitiously record Jonas and ultimately testify against him.

Pelaez said it happened in 2015 when Jonas, who he had known for more than 10 years and had even represented for part of a divorce and child support case, asked him to meet with a company trying to put a solar energy project on a Crystal City-owned landfill. He said Jonas proposed Pelaez charge the company a big retainer to represent them and give Jonas a third of it, calling it a "referral fee." Since the two attorneys would represent opposing sides, that didn't sit well with Pelaez, who told KSAT he saw it as an attempt to funnel a bribe through him.

"I was shocked," Pelaez said. "I was very confused. I didn't know why he thought I'd be up for something like that."

Pelaez said he reached out to the FBI and began secretly recording his and Jonas' conversations for the authorities.

On those recordings, which were partly played in court on Thursday, Jonas said he wants "a favorable share of what you collect."

In the end, nothing was collected. A deal never materialized -- only criminal charges.

"It's very sad," Pelaez said. "It's a cautionary tale for anyone out there who thinks you can cheat and lie your way into riches."

During cross-examination, Jonas' attorney, Rogelio M. Munoz, tried to cast doubt on whether the requested payment was unacceptable and whether Jonas and Pelaez's conversations were covered under attorney-client privilege.

Jonas and Munoz declined to comment.

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