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Testimony begins in Weslaco water treatment plant corruption trial

In December 2014, an engineer called Interim Weslaco City Manager Elizabeth Walker.

The engineer — Richard LeFevre — said San Antonio-based Briones Consulting & Engineering hadn’t paid him for work on the Weslaco water treatment plant.

Weslaco had paid millions to Briones and Boston-based construction company CDM. LeFevre wanted his money too.

During the conversation, though, LeFevre made a strange comment.

“He said: ‘Elizabeth, you have to know this water treatment plant is a beached whale,’” Walker said. “Everyone is feeding off the carcass.”

LeFevre couldn’t be reached for comment on Tuesday afternoon.

Walker recounted the conversation on Tuesday, when she took the witness stand in a federal bribery case against former Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr., 68, of Progreso Lakes and businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, 55, of Weslaco.

The trial, which started on Tuesday morning, is expected to take about two weeks.

Witnesses may include state Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, Weslaco Mayor David Suarez and members of the Weslaco City Commission.

The case against A.C. Cuellar and Quintanilla is part of a federal investigation called “Tarnished Water,” which focused on corruption at Weslaco City Hall. Prosecutors brought charges against seven people, including former Starr County power broker Leonel J. Lopez Jr., who died in November 2020.

“Leo Lopez was the mastermind of this bribery scheme,” said William J. Gullotta, a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section.

CDM, Briones and LeFevre paid about $4.1 million to Lopez, who passed along nearly $1.4 million to A.C. Cuellar and nearly $86,000 to Quintanilla.

“They were the middlemen between Leo and the commissioners,” Gullotta said.

A.C. Cuellar paid about $405,000 to his cousin, Weslaco City Commissioner John F. Cuellar, through a concrete business called Quality Ready Mix. Quintanilla, meanwhile, cashed his checks and split the money with Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla.

In exchange, John Cuellar and Tafolla steered engineering contracts to CDM and Briones, which subcontracted work to LeFevre.

“They wanted to get their cut of this big project,” Gullotta said.

Tafolla pleaded guilty to bribery. John Cuellar pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge. And another commissioner, David Fox, pleaded guilty to perjury.

Prosecutors also brought charges against former Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia, but they dropped the case without explanation in December 2021.

A.C. Cuellar and Quintanilla pleaded not guilty.

Attorney Carlos A. Garcia of Mission, who represents A.C. Cuellar, said his client did nothing wrong.

Lopez, who had connections throughout Texas, became a business consultant.

“A.C. and Leo had an agreement,” Carlos Garcia said. “The agreement was that A.C. would be his eyes and ears, his boots on the ground.”

Lopez made regular payments to A.C. Cuellar, who paid taxes on the income, Carlos Garcia said. They never attempted to hide the arrangement.

“If A.C. knows people, if Mr. Quintanilla knows people, then they have a right to earn money,” Carlos Garcia said. “And make it.”

John Cuellar had provided A.C. Cuellar with legal advice for years. A.C. Cuellar paid John Cuellar back by putting him on the payroll.

“A.C. paid bribes to no one,” Carlos Garcia said.

FBI agents from other parts of the United States, however, considered A.C. Cuellar a trophy, Carlos Garcia said, and cooked up the corruption case to advance their careers.

During initial interviews, John Cuellar and Jerry Tafolla denied any wrongdoing. Carlos Garcia said they pleaded guilty after being pressured by the government.

“The government continued to press them until they broke,” Carlos Garcia said.

Witness testimony is scheduled to resume on Wednesday.

1 Comment

  1. Abelardo solis on October 12, 2022 at 9:35 am

    They should all be made examples of

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