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FBI arrests businessman in Weslaco water treatment plant bribery scandal

The FBI arrested a Weslaco businessman Thursday on money laundering and wire fraud charges.

Businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, 51, of Weslaco appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter E. Ormsby on Friday morning.

The indictment against Quintanilla details a bribery scheme related to the Weslaco water treatment plant.

Engineers paid a middleman, who wrote checks to Quintanilla. He cashed the checks and split the money with a member of the Weslaco City Commission.

“According to the indictment, from approximately August 2011 through December 2016, the companies supplied Quintanilla with approximately $85,950 which was funneled through a co-conspirator. Quintanilla allegedly kept a portion of these payments and paid the remainder to a city commissioner,” according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas. “In exchange for these bribe payments, the indictment alleges that the city commissioner used his official position to benefit the companies, including by voting to authorize multi-million dollar contracts for water treatment facilities in the City of Weslaco.”

Quintanilla served on the Weslaco Economic Development Corp. board and unsuccessfully challenged Weslaco City Commissioner Olga Noriega in November 2014.

Prosecutors believe Quintanilla bribed a member of the Weslaco City Commission to steer more than $50 million worth of infrastructure contracts to engineers with political connections.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. described the scheme March 22, when a key player — former Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel J. Lopez Jr. — pleaded guilty to bribery.

During the March 22 hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lopez said that Leonel Lopez Jr., the defendant, worked with “Individual B,” a businessman who lived and worked in Weslaco, to bribe “Commissioner B,” a member of the Weslaco City Commission elected in 2009.

“To provide bribe payments to Commissioner B, the defendant enlisted Individual B, who agreed to secure Commissioner B’s participation and act as a conduit for bribe payments to Commissioner B,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lopez said. “The defendant paid Individual B approximately $92,950 by checks and Individual B would cash the checks and split the cash with Commissioner B. The purpose of making the payments in this way was to further conceal and promote the ongoing bribery scheme.”

Quintanilla is Individual B. Commissioner B is City Commissioner Jerry Tafolla, who was elected in May 2009.

Tafolla didn’t respond to requests for comment. Attorney Robert L. Steindel, who represents Quintanilla, couldn’t immediately comment after the hearing.

Quintanilla is scheduled for an arraignment and detention hearing, where he will enter a plea and the judge will set bond, at 3 p.m. Monday.

As a result of the bribery scheme, the Weslaco City Commission approved design and construction of an extremely expensive water treatment plant. The project saddled Weslaco residents with sky-high water bills.

“We have some of the highest water rates,” said J.P. Rodriguez, who joined the City Commission in November 2017 and pushed to investigate the project. “Nothing good came out of this whole fraudulent water plant deal.”

Rodriguez said he wanted to thank federal agents and prosecutors who spent years investigating what happened.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Rodriguez said. “I think the citizens of Weslaco are finally going to see justice. And, hopefully, we can move forward.”

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