A businessman and three Rio Grande Valley politicians indicted in the Weslaco water treatment plant bribery scandal pleaded not guilty Thursday.
Businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, 51, of Weslaco, former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr., 65, of Progreso Lakes, former Weslaco City Commissioner John F. Cuellar, 56, of Weslaco and Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia, 40, of Rio Grande City pleaded not guilty to bribery, money laundering and wire fraud charges Thursday afternoon.
They participated in a scheme to steer more than $50 million worth of infrastructure contracts — including the Weslaco water treatment plant, which saddled residents with huge water bills — to specific engineers, according to the indictment. In exchange for the contracts, the engineers paid more than $4 million in bribes.
FBI agents and the Criminal Investigation division of the IRS spent years investigating the bribery scheme.
“The investigative reports and documents collected in the course of the investigation total more than 100,000 pages,” according to a motion filed Wednesday. “The documentary evidence is comprised of reports of interviews, complicated bank transactions, records of the Weslaco City Commission, and complex construction contract files. There are also more than 120 recordings of the defendants and other witnesses, totaling hundreds of hours of audio.”
Two politicians pleaded guilty and may cooperate with prosecutors.
Leonel Lopez Jr., 52, of Rio Grande City — who served as Rio Grande City municipal judge and worked for state Rep. Ryan Guillen — pleaded guilty to federal program bribery on March 22. Two weeks later, Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla, 52, of Weslaco pleaded guilty to the same charge.
After he pleaded guilty, Tafolla resigned from the City Commission.
“Although, I am not proud of my actions, I am not ashamed of the progress and accomplishments that you (the citizens of Weslaco) and I as your city commissioner have brought to the City of Weslaco in the past nine and a half years,” Tafolla wrote, according to a copy of the resignation letter released under the Texas Public Information Act. “Do not let my actions affect the growth of this great City of Weslaco and keep demanding more from your city commissioners.”
Neither the indictment nor the number of pages collected by the government is evidence of guilt, said attorney Carlos A. Garcia of Mission, who represents A.C. Cuellar.
“The fact that you have volumes of paper does not equate guilt in any sense,” Carlos A. Garcia said. “And it’s our position, and it always will be, that the facts, once they’re borne out in front of a jury, are going to show that any payments that were made between Mr. Cuellar and John Cuellar, and from Mr. Lopez to A.C. Cuellar were not for illegal purposes.”
To secure convictions, prosecutors must prove a conspiracy to steer contracts and corruptly influence the Weslaco water treatment plant project.
“There was no agreement for Mr. John Cuellar to act on behalf of anyone or vote in a certain way,” Carlos A. Garcia said. “It’s the government’s burden to prove otherwise. And they’re going to rest their case on two people that are convicted felons and have every incentive to make up whatever story the government wants to hear.”