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Prosecutors drop charges against former Rio Grande City school board trustee

Federal prosecutors on Tuesday filed a motion to dismiss all charges against former Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia in the Weslaco water treatment plant bribery case.

Marco A. Palmieri, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section, announced the decision Tuesday during a hearing before U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez.

“We intend to file a motion to dismiss charges against Mr. Danny Garcia, your honor,” Palmieri said. “That approval was received after close of business yesterday, so we have not yet had an opportunity to formally file.”

Palmieri didn’t explain why the government — after more than two years of pre-trial proceedings — decided to drop the charges against Garcia.

Former Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia. (Photo courtesy of Rio Grande City Grulla ISD.)

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.

“I don’t think that anybody who is not guilty should plead guilty,” said attorney Christopher Sully of McAllen, who represented Garcia. “And that was his position all along: That he was innocent of these charges.”

Prosecutors had accused Garcia of participating in a bribery scheme that brought together greedy engineers and corrupt members of the Weslaco City Commission.

The engineers paid more than $4 million to Leonel J. Lopez Jr., a Starr County power broker with political connections throughout the Rio Grande Valley. Lopez kept more than $2.5 million for himself.

He provided the remainder to middlemen — Garcia, former Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C” Cuellar Jr., and Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla — who allegedly bribed members of the City Commission.

In exchange, the City Commission steered more than $50 million in contracts to the engineers.

The contracts included work on a water treatment plant, two wastewater treatment plants and related infrastructure.

Lopez pleaded guilty to bribery, but he died before sentencing. Three former members of the City Commission — John F. Cuellar, David Fox and Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla — also confessed.

Garcia, however, maintained his innocence. The FBI and the Criminal Investigation division of the IRS arrested him in April 2019.

Garcia was accused of accepting $100,000 from Lopez. After he received the money, Garcia paid $90,000 to John F. Cuellar.

His arrest shocked Starr County, where Garcia was a successful attorney and served on the Rio Grande City school board.

A grand jury indicted Garcia on wire fraud and money laundering charges. He faced a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.

Garcia pleaded not guilty.

While he didn’t make any public statements about the case, Garcia privately told anyone who would listen that he was innocent — and the case would be dismissed. Few believed him.

Faced with the federal indictment, Garcia didn’t run for re-election.

His law practice also took a hit. Garcia had to convince many clients that he wasn’t headed to prison himself.

Delayed by the pandemic, the case against Garcia remained pending for more than two years before the announcement on Tuesday morning.

“I don’t want to speculate as far as their reasons,” Sully said, when asked why he believed prosecutors decided to drop the case.

Charges against Quintanilla and A.C. Cuellar remain pending.

The trial, which had been scheduled for January, was delayed until June 2022 amid concerns about the pandemic.

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