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Former EPISD trustee Sal Mena and former banker Chris Pak sentenced in corruption cases involving bribery

Mena placed on suicide watch

by Alberto Tomas Halpern // December 16, 2013 // Government

Former EPISD trustee Sal Mena and former banker Chris Pak sentenced in corruption cases involving bribery

Former EPISD trustee, Salvador "Sal" Mena, Jr. and former Bear Stearns representative Christoper Chol-Su Pak were sentenced in federal court today for their roles in corruption schemes. (Newspaper Tree illustration)

Of all the individuals involved in widespread bribery and corruption cases throughout El Paso, former El Paso Independent School District or EPISD trustee, Salvador “Sal” Marcos Mena, Jr., gained the most, U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo said in court today at Mena’s sentencing.

“You, Mr. Mena, are the one that was most extensively involved and you benefited the most,” Montalvo said. “You’ve also caused a lot of harm to this community,” the judge added.

Mena was sentenced to three years in federal prison and was immediately remanded into the custody of U.S. Marshals for his role in accepting bribes.

The United States Attorney’s Office explained in a statement that Mena “set up a sham consulting contract” with a vendor doing business with EPISD in which he received an income for consulting services, but provided no consultation.

In addition, Mena ordered other vendors to make political contributions to his election campaigns in exchange for favorable votes.

He pled guilty to two conspiracy charges on February 18, 2009, according to court records though he had originally pleaded not guilty.

According to various news reports, Mena accepted a bribe from Gary Lange, a Michigan businessman with the firm Strategic Government Solutions, Inc., in order to support a software contract. Lange was sentenced in October for bribing Mena and for conspiring with a business partner, Joseph O’Hara of New York, in obtaining the software contract at EPISD.

The El Paso Times reported earlier this year that Lange admitted to helping O’Hara bribe former EPISD associate superintendent Tomas Gabaldon in the amount of $100,000.

In addition to his prison term, Mena was sentenced to three years of supervised leave and was ordered to pay $176,455, part of the amount in bribes he accepted as an EPISD trustee. Montalvo also ordered U.S. Marshals to place Mena on suicide watch.

“I’m concerned you may commit suicide,” Montalvo told Mena after handing down his sentence. Relatives of Mena wept in the courtroom as U.S. Marshals escorted him out.

Mena lost his composure when given the opportunity to address the court before his sentencing. After a short recess, he told the court, “I take full responsibility. I hurt a lot of people. I got greedy. I want to apologize to my family, to the students, teachers and faculty of the district. I’m sorry for what I did.”

Randolf Joseph Ortega, Mena’s attorney, told members of the news media outside the courthouse that the sentence handed down was expected, but “we’re disappointed.” Ortega explained in court that his 67-year-old client is the patriarch of a big family who needs his support.

“He’s a good man who made bad decisions,” Ortega said. He added that Mena now suffers from depression and “rues the day” that he broke the law.

“He’s made some honest attempts to repair damages he’s caused,” Ortega said without going into detail.

Montalvo said that despite the sentence, Mena is still in a position to make up for his wrongdoing.

“Unlike every single defendant, you still have information that could benefit the government to put people in prison,” said Montalvo.

Christopher Chol-Su Pak, also known as Chris Pak, a former representative of global investment bank, Bear Stearns was also sentenced today. Pak was sentenced to three years’ probation and given a $20,000 fine for his role in defrauding El Paso County by bribing a county commissioner.

Earlier in the month, on Monday, December 2, Montalvo sentenced Roberto “Bobby” Ruiz, another former Bear Stearns employee, to two years in prison for bribing public officials and other crimes against a number of El Paso public institutions, including El Paso County and EPISD.

Pak is guilty of helping Ruiz carry out and cover up a bribery scheme in which some El Paso County commissioners were paid off to terminate a $40 million debt refinancing contract with First Southwest, an investment bank, and hand it over to Bear Stearns.

At Ruiz’s sentencing, Montalvo suggested Bear Stearns stood to gain from his illegal activities, saying Ruiz was “the tip of the spear” and “the spear was Bear Stearns.”

EPISD spokesperson, Reneé de Santos, issued a short statement to Newspaper Tree after Mena was sentenced: “EPISD severed its relationship with Mr. Mena many years ago and prefers not to comment on legal proceedings.”

The wording of the statement from EPISD was almost exactly the same as the statement issued two weeks ago regarding Ruiz: “EPISD severed its relationship with Mr. Ruiz many years ago and prefers not to comment on legal proceedings.”

According to Montalvo, Pak, unlike Ruiz, played a much smaller role in the corruption schemes.

“Much of what you did was cover up for Mr. Ruiz,” Montalvo told Pak.

Assistant United States Attorney, Debra Kanof, the prosecutor, said Pak “did substantially help” federal officials with corruption investigations.

“You have earned every bit of leniency in this case,” Montalvo told Pak.

Pak apologized to the El Paso residents for his crimes, saying he takes “full responsibility” for what he did.

Greg Hassell, a spokesman for JP Morgan Chase & Co., which acquired Bear Stearns in 2008, declined to comment, saying that the firm had not acquired Bear Stearns when the Ruiz’s and Pak’s illegal activities took place.

Today’s sentences come on the heels of those of former county commissioner Elizabeth “Betti” Flores and former assistant district clerk Fernando Parra. Flores was sentenced to five years’ probation and a $25,000 fine, while Parra was sentenced to the five months in jail he had already served.

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