Faced with a major spike in COVID-19 infections, a federal judge on Thursday bumped the Weslaco water treatment plant bribery trial from September to January.
Attorneys for businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla and former Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr. asked to delay the trial. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, which is prosecuting the case, and lawyers who represent former Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia wanted to stick to the September schedule.
“I would very much like to have this case move forward, but I understand the concerns of counsel,” said U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez. “Not just for the health-related issues, which I think are very legitimate concerns, but also for the constitutional issues that do come into play.”
The indictment accused Daniel J. Garcia, Quintanilla and A.C. Cuellar of participating in a scheme to bribe members of the Weslaco City Commission to steer contracts to certain engineers.
The engineers paid about $4.1 million to former Rio Grande City school board Trustee Leonel J. Lopez Jr., who funneled part of the money to Daniel J. Garcia, Quintanilla and A.C. Cuellar, according to the indictment. They paid members of the City Commission.
Leonel J. Lopez Jr. pleaded guilty but died in November 2020 while awaiting sentencing.
Former City Commissioner John F. Cuellar, former City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla and former City Commissioner David Fox pleaded guilty. Daniel J. Garcia, Quintanilla and A.C. Cuellar pleaded not guilty.
Attempting to hold a trial in the middle of a COVID-19 surge presented a dizzying array of challenges.
“What does the court intend to do in regards to whether a party, a witness or a juror contracts COVID during the course of the proceedings?” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr.
Prosecutors and lawyers for the defendants worried that face masks would prevent them from properly questioning witnesses.
“We will object to the restriction that I heard the court articulate that all attorneys and witnesses will have to wear masks,” said attorney Jaime Peña of McAllen, who represents Quintanilla. “I tried a case a couple months ago in Judge Crane’s court, and the wearing of masks by attorneys and witnesses is impractical in an actual trial.”
Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. agreed.
“The government has some of the same concerns as Mr. Peña alluded to, particularly in regards to witnesses wearing masks,” Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. said.
They also worried that witnesses may not want to travel or testify in person during the middle of a pandemic.
“I myself, on behalf of Mr. Cuellar, have had discussions with at least one potential witness who is out of state who is not willing to travel to the Valley because of the spike in COVID cases right now,” said attorney Carlos A. Garcia of Mission, who represents A.C. Cuellar.
Health problems had already threatened to hamper the case.
In July 2020, prosecutors and lawyers for the defendants arranged a deposition by videoconference for a witness undergoing “very aggressive” cancer treatment that left her with a weakened immune system.
While the court might allow witnesses to testify by videoconference, the option presented a bevy of potential problems.
“Whether there’s anybody else in the room with them, whether they’re looking at their phone or looking up some other information as they answer,” said attorney Christopher Sully of McAllen, who represents Daniel J. Garcia. “In the courtroom, that’s easy to enforce, but not so much remotely.”
Alvarez agreed to delay the trial until January, but she cautioned that masks, witness testimony by video and other problems may not be resolved simply by waiting a few months.
“Even if we were to postpone it to December or even January, we would still be dealing with the issue,” Alvarez said. “COVID will not be wiped off the face of — even our region, I think, for who knows. Maybe another year of still dealing with some COVID cases.”
Jury selection is scheduled for Jan. 10, 2022.