Two members of the Weslaco City Commission accepted bribes during the construction of the Weslaco water treatment plant.
Leonel J. Lopez Jr., 52, of Rio Grande City — who served Rio Grande City as municipal judge and worked part-time for state Rep. Ryan Guillen — apparently masterminded the bribery scheme, which involved corrupt engineers, attorneys and businessmen.
“It is always disappointing when people are trying to influence elected officials,” Weslaco Mayor David Suarez said in a statement. “When I ran for office, my biggest concern was the water plant and the excessive money that was spent on that project. And I hope that in the near future we will have a conclusion to what, exactly, happened during that process.”
After a lengthy investigation, which involved the FBI and the IRS, prosecutors charged Leonel Lopez Jr. with federal programs bribery. He pleaded guilty Friday.
During the plea hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. described a sprawling conspiracy to steer $50 million worth of infrastructure contracts.
The scheme brought together “Individual A,” a resident of Hidalgo County who is the part-owner of a concrete company; “Individual B,” a businessman who lived and worked in Weslaco; and “Individual C,” an attorney from Rio Grande City.
They worked with “Company A,” an international engineering and construction company; “Company B,” an engineering company based in San Antonio; and “Company C,” an engineering company based in McAllen.
Leonel Lopez Jr. accepted more than $4 million from Company A, Company B and Company C, according to information discussed at the plea hearing. Leonel Lopez Jr. kept about $2.5 million.
He passed the remaining money to Individual A, Individual B and Individual C, who made payments to Weslaco City “Commissioner A” and Weslaco City “Commissioner B.”
Commissioner A is an attorney who served on the Weslaco City Commission from about 1995 to 2014, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto Lopez. Commissioner B is a current member of the Weslaco City Commission who was elected in 2009.
Both accepted bribes.
Leonel Lopez Jr. paid Commissioner A through Individual A, the Hidalgo County resident described as the part-owner of a concrete company.
“To pay Commissioner A, the defendant provided checks totaling approximately $1,405,000 to Individual A, who then laundered approximately $405,000 in check payments to Commissioner A through Company D,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto Lopez said. “The bribe payments made by Individual A to Commissioner A were disguised as payments for legitimate business that Commissioner A never performed.”
Leonel Lopez Jr. also paid Commissioner A through Individual C, the attorney based in Rio Grande City.
“The defendant provided bribe payments to Individual C, who used an IOLTA bank account for Individual C’s law practice to launder approximately $90,000 in bribe payments and provide them to Commissioner A,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto Lopez said. “To conceal these bribe payments, Individual C attempted to establish a false attorney-client relationship among the defendant, Individual C and Commissioner A.”
An IOLTA bank account is a type of account used by attorneys.
Leonel Lopez Jr. paid Commissioner B through Individual B, the businessman who lived and worked in Weslaco.
“The defendant paid Individual B approximately $92,950 by checks and Individual B would cash the checks and split the cash with Commissioner B,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto Lopez said. “The purpose of making the payments in this way was to further conceal and promote the ongoing bribery scheme.”
Leonel Lopez Jr. kept about $2.5 million for himself. As a condition of the plea, he agreed to forfeit that money.
“In exchange for the bribes, commissioners A and B voted in favor of infrastructure projects related to Weslaco’s water processing facilities and steered over $50 million in contracts to companies A, B and C,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto Lopez said. “Companies A and B then granted subcontracts to Company C.”
Asked whether or not the prosecutor had provided accurate information, Leonel Lopez Jr. confessed to everything.
Leonel Lopez Jr. is scheduled for sentencing July 15. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.