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Former city commissioner pleads guilty in Weslaco water treatment plant bribery scandal

Former City Commissioner John Cuellar pleaded guilty Friday in the Weslaco water treatment plant bribery scandal.

John F. Cuellar, an attorney who served on the Weslaco City Commission from May 1995 to November 2014, pleaded guilty Friday morning to conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud.

Asked by U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez whether or not he accepted bribes, John Cuellar had a succinct answer: “Yes, your honor.”

John Cuellar participated in a scheme to steer more than $50 million worth of infrastructure contracts to corrupt engineers, according to the indictment. In exchange, the engineers paid more than $4 million in bribes.

Federal agents spent years investigating the scheme, which brought together power brokers from Weslaco and Rio Grande City.

“The investigative reports and documents collected in the course of the investigation total more than 100,000 pages,” according to a motion filed in April. “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.”

Along with John Cuellar, prosecutors charged former Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel J. Lopez Jr., Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia, businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla of Weslaco, former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr. of Progreso Lakes and former Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla.

The indictment explains how engineers funneled money to John Cuellar through a series of middlemen.

Engineers paid millions to Lopez, a well-known power broker in Starr County, according to the indictment. Lopez passed part of the money to A.C. Cuellar, who paid $405,000 to his cousin, John Cuellar, through a company he owned.

Lopez also passed money to Garcia, an attorney who serves on the Rio Grande City school board, according to the indictment. Garcia paid $90,000 to John Cuellar through his attorney trust account.

Both A.C. Cuellar and Garcia deny the allegations. Lopez pleaded guilty.

John Cuellar is tentatively scheduled for sentencing on Oct. 22. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.

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