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Willie Gandara Sr. sentenced to 3-and-a-half years in prison in public corruption case

Published On: Dec 24 2013 08:05:04 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 16 2014 08:08:33 PM CST

ABC-7s Matthew Smith reports.

EL PASO, Texas -

In a time of fast-paced gadgets and immediacy of information the sloth-like process of Willie Gandara Sr.'s plea hearing was apparent. Gandara sat alone at the defense table for 30 minutes, while lawyers and U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo discussed issues behind closed doors. What was said outside the courtroom is anyone's guess, but for 30 minutes Gandara stared off in the distance, sighing occasionally, never looking back at his family and friends similarly waiting to hear his fate.

To the casual spectator, his family seemed miles away. In reality, they were roughly 20 feet behind Gandara waiting for news. By the time he looked back at them, he'd been sentenced to 42 months in prison, a $25,000 fine and told to pay $5,575 in restitution. Gandara's sentence is tied to his part in what is now dubbed "Operation Poisoned Pawns." Gandara accepted a bribe when he was a Socorro Independent School District trustee to approve Access Healthsource as the district's new insurance provider. He along with 10 other people were indicted.

Gandara officially pleaded guilty to wire fraud, a move he made back in July opting out of a jury trial. The 42 months in prison is the maximum sentence allowed, however, the judge told him it could be reduced depending on what comes of "information" he gave the FBI recently.

What the U.S. District Attorney's office has known for some time came to light during Thursday's hearing, Gandara has handed over information that could lead to future arrests and indictments. According to the judge, he isn't willing to give Gandara any leniency for that information unless it leads to prosecutions.

"You finally saw the light, and you stand to benefit from it," U.S. District Court Judge Frank Montalvo told Gandara. "But I cannot act on a hope and a prayer."

Despite giving a brief apology in court highlighting the damage he'd done to his family, the Socorro ISD and his constituents, Gandara declined to comment on his sentence or offer a public apology after the hearing. He left the courthouse flanked by family and lawyers, never looking up to respond to questions.

Gandara's attorney, Jim Darnell, told ABC-7 that he's hopeful his clients information will lead to more arrests and a reduced sentence for his client. However, he said he wouldn't be making any public comments about that information.

"I think today was acceptable," said Darnell. "I mean, you always want something less, but today was an acceptable result."

Gandara was not taken into custody. He will be allowed to turn himself in in early February. The judge told Gandara he was doing this to allow him to spend Christmas with his family, and see his son. According to the judge's statements in court, Gandara Sr. hasn't been able to visit with his son in quite sometime due to obligations tied to his pretrial agreement. Gandara is the last of the 11 people linked to the "Operation Poisoned Pawns" investigation that led to a total of 39 federal convictions. Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Kanof told ABC-7 she was glad to have the hearings behind her.

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