U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez on Thursday tentatively scheduled the Weslaco water treatment plant bribery case for trial on April 26.
Prosecutors secured indictments against several key players in the bribery scandal — former Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr., businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla and Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia — during 2019. They pleaded not guilty.
The coronavirus pandemic stopped the court from holding a trial last year, leaving the defendants in limbo.
“I am hopeful that by that time we are controlling this pandemic a little bit better. I also do know, of course, vaccination is occurring now,” Alvarez said during a hearing on Thursday morning. “None of you may actually fall into the category right now where you are given priority, but hopefully by that time vaccinations will be more available to the public as well.”
The case against Cuellar, Quintanilla and Daniel J. Garcia centers on contracts awarded by the Weslaco City Commission to upgrade water and sewer infrastructure.
Engineers paid more than $4 million in bribes to Starr County power broker Leonel J. Lopez Jr., who funneled the money to Cuellar, Quintanilla and Daniel J. Garcia, according to the indictment. They passed the money to members of the City Commission, who steered more than $50 million in contracts to the engineers.
Leonel J. Lopez Jr., who died in November, and three former members of the City Commission pleaded guilty.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. estimated that prosecutors will need four or five days to present their case.
“I’ve been conferring with my colleagues on this case,” Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. said. “I think we’re ready to try it at the court’s convenience.”
Along with Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr., the prosecution team includes Peter M. Nothstein, a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section. Nothstein was one of several prosecutors who handled the bribery case against former state District Judge Rudy Delgado.
Attorneys for the defendants estimated they would need at least another week to present their cases.
“I think, for my case in chief, with the number of witnesses that we potentially may call, we could be looking at minimum a week, just for the defense case,” said attorney Jaime Peña of McAllen, who represents Quintanilla.
Attorney Carlos A. Garcia of Mission, who represents Cuellar, said he would need a few additional days.
“We anticipate using about three to four days of the court’s time,” Carlos A. Garcia said.
Attorney Oscar Vega of McAllen, who represents defendant Daniel J. Garcia, said he needed just one day.
“We have a very limited case,” Vega said. “So I expect that maybe we have one day of our witnesses that we can present.”
After conferring with the attorneys, Alvarez said she would clear two weeks on the court calendar.
“To begin with, I feel comfortable opening up two weeks,” Alvarez said, adding that they would work full days and could make additional time available if necessary.
Alavarez directed prosecutors and defense attorneys to exchange lists of exhibits and witnesses by March 26. The court scheduled a pretrial hearing for April 9.
Jury selection is tentatively scheduled to start at 9 a.m. on April 26.