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Q&A: Former Rio Grande City school board trustee shares his reaction after federal prosecutors drop charges

This article appeared in the Jan. 7 issue of the Progress Times.

 

Federal prosecutors dropped all charges against former Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia last week in the Weslaco water treatment plant bribery case.

Prosecutors had accused Garcia of accepting $100,000 from Leonel J. Lopez Jr., a Starr County power broker, and passing along $90,000 to former Weslaco City Commissioner John F. Cuellar.

Garcia pleaded not guilty.

On Dec. 28 — more than two years after a grand jury indicted Garcia — prosecutors filed a motion to drop the charges.

The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t respond to a request for comment about the decision.

Garcia, though, agreed to discuss the case with the Progress Times. Garcia was joined by his wife and his attorney, Christopher Sully of McAllen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

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

Progress Times: What was going through your head when you heard the government’s attorney say that?

Garcia: Originally I was like: ‘Hey, did I just hear that?’

I had not heard anything from Chris (Sully) or Oscar (Vega) about anything, any discussions about dismissals. So when I heard it there, I was like: ‘Did I just hear right?’

(Oscar Vega and Christopher Sully are the attorneys who represented Garcia.)

And then, obviously, I’m familiar with the you know, like — when is it going to be filed? Are you unopposed?

So I was like: ‘Hey, it’s the real deal.’

My first reaction was: You want to cry. But as an attorney myself, you alway try to tell to your clients: Don’t celebrate. Don’t show emotions there in the courtroom.

So I was just holding it in ‘til the screen was black.

I didn’t want to show any emotion in front of the judge or prosecutors.

So I was, obviously, happy.

Progress Times: Had you had any indication from the government that this was in the offing or a possibility?

Sully: No. It was a surprise to me and to Mr. Vega as well.

Like Danny was saying, sometimes they’ll give us a heads-up and say ‘Hey, don’t worry, we’re going to file a motion to dismiss’ and to get our position on it before the hearing. But that hadn’t happened this time.

And we were still receiving and reviewing discovery as recently as just before Christmas. Getting the discovery and evidence to review and prepare for trial, just like the other attorneys.

So, yeah, it was a surprise to us. There was no indication that was going to happen.

Progress Times: Can you take me all the way back? This started, at least for you, in the early 2010s. The government alleged that you had received this money from Leo Lopez and paid it to John Cuellar. These transactions that they talk about — what was going on with them? Did they actually happen?

Sully: So, if I can jump in, I’ve advised him that even though his charge is dismissed, since there’s still a trial coming up for the other defendants as part of the same case, that it’s better to kind of try to stay away from the facts of what happened back then.

He can still, obviously, talk about his plans going forward or the overall process.

(I) just don’t want to taint the trial or the jury for the other defendants that have their case coming up by trying to put the story out there of what happened.

Progress Times: The discovery log in the case suggests that you talked with the government both in proffer sessions and, it looks like, interviews with the FBI on multiple, multiple occasions years before this resulted in an indictment. Can you tell me anything about what you tried to explain to them or what they wanted from you at that time?

Sully: I think the same caution (applies), especially because a lot of those discussions would have been confidential and you still have trial coming up and the case open for other defendants.

I would advise against going into the particulars of that, but I think, generally, what we can say is that Danny’s always tried to be open about the situation and about his innocence. And was hoping that it could be resolved that way — by being open and trying to show he was innocent.

Progress Times: Obviously the case has been dismissed. But from the beginning you and your attorneys were pushing for severance from the other defendants. A quicker trial. Do you have any idea why it took the government so long to make this decision?

Garcia: I liked his comment when he said: ‘I don’t want to assume what the government’s thinking.’

I saw it in the paper the other day. It was like: ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t want to assume what they’re thinking.’

It was their call at the end — and for whatever reasons they had, I’m glad they did.

Progress Times: Having gone through this, do you think that it’s going to affect how you represent clients?

Garcia: That? For sure. Yes.

It’s given me more of an incentive to be a little bit more aggressive with representing my clients.

The government — I’m not just talking about the federal government, in state court as well — they’re humans. They make errors. Officers make mistakes.

And that’s why people hire us, to protect their rights and fight for them.

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