McALLEN — On Tuesday morning, Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. Jose Padilla sat quietly on the eighth floor of Bentsen Tower.
While the federal magistrate plowed through illegal immigration cases, Jose A. “Joe” Padilla, 53, of Donna stared straight ahead. Padilla slowly rocked back and forth inside the jury box, waiting to formally hear the indictment against him — and whether he would spend Christmas in jail.
Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos answered both questions swiftly.
The sealed indictment charged Padilla with money laundering and drug trafficking, Ramos said. And until a Friday morning hearing, Padilla would remain in federal custody.
Neither attorney Luis Singleterry nor attorney Joe Cisneros, who have both represented Padilla during the past few months, responded for a request for comment Tuesday. If convicted, Padilla would face a mandatory 10-year minimum on the drug trafficking charge.
“Speaking on behalf of the family, I hope everything works itself out,” said Donna police Chief Ram De Leon, a fellow lawman and Padilla’s cousin.
“We’re all adults and we all have choices,” De Leon said. “When we have a choice to go left or right, hopefully we make the right decision.”
Born on Jan. 1, 1960, Padilla attended Donna High School but never graduated, according to county personnel records. Padilla loaded trucks and worked security for the Donna school district before joining the Donna Police Department.
In May 1989, Padilla joined the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and quickly ascended through the ranks. Up to now, Padilla has supervised the Special Services Bureau, which encompasses the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Academy, warrants and community relations, including several mobile sub-stations. He earns $77,250 annually.
In Donna, law enforcement remains synonymous with the Padilla family. De Leon heads the city Police Department and Padilla’s brother recently took over the small Donna Independent School District Police Department.
With Hidalgo County closed for the Christmas holiday, Sheriff Lupe Treviño said he couldn’t immediately take administrative action against Padilla — and hadn’t read the indictment, anyway. On Thursday, though, Treviño said he’ll seek legal advice about the situation and take swift action, perhaps including an internal investigation. The details haven’t been worked out, Sheriff Treviño said, but he’s very concerned about the federal case against Padilla.
“When the allegations were made, the first thing I thought of was the morale impact that it would have not only on the guys, on our people at work, but on our community,” Sheriff Treviño said.
Last December, morale and public trust plummeted after federal agents arrested Sheriff Treviño’s son, Mission police Investigator Jonathan Treviño, and several sheriff’s deputies assigned to a street-level narcotics squad called the Panama Unit.
Eventually, the corruption scandal expanded to nine lawmen — seven from the Sheriff’s Office and two from the Mission Police Department — and three drug traffickers. All have pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial.
“Obviously we’ve been through a lot these last 12, 13 months,” Sheriff Treviño said. “But we’ve always bounced back. I feel that we’re very resilient.”
Hopefully, the allegations against Padilla and a small number of other disgraced lawmen will not tar the whole department, Sheriff Treviño said.
“That’s the only thing I ask the people, is ‘Don’t judge my leadership of 800-plus people and their accomplishments based on the alleged actions of a few selfish individuals,’” Sheriff Treviño said.
Tuesday marked another arrest uncomfortably close to Sheriff Treviño, who adamantly denied knowing anything about Padilla’s alleged cooperation with drug trafficker Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez, who owned Weslaco-based T&F Produce.
“Unequivocally, there’s absolutely no way I had any knowledge whatsoever about the allegations, if they are true, any more than I did about the Panama Unit,” Treviño said.
The Drug Enforcement Administration started investigating Gonzalez during December 2010 and eventually obtained information about the operation from a half-dozen informants. Gonzalez’s attorney declined to comment Tuesday.
Several months ago, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Sturgis started meeting with Padilla, asking questions about the potentially illegal activity and offering him a deal — cooperate with federal agents in exchange for probation, according to federal court records.