When asked on Wednesday whether or not he accepted bribes, former Weslaco City Commissioner John Cuellar responded with a single word: “Yes.”
John Cuellar said his cousin, former Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar, paid him about $405,000 from 2011 to 2014.
In exchange, John Cuellar approved contracts worth more than $50 million to upgrade water and wastewater treatment plants in Weslaco. The projects saddled taxpayers with debt and sky-high water bills.
“A.C. and I were very close,” John Cuellar said, and talked almost every day.
John F. Cuellar, 59, of Weslaco — who served on the City Commission from 1995 to 2014 — discussed the scheme on Wednesday, when he testified against A.C. Cuellar at trial.
The case against Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr., 68, of Progreso Lakes is part of a federal investigation that focused on corruption in Weslaco. Prosecutors call the case “Tarnished Water,” which apparently refers to water and wastewater treatment projects tainted by corruption.
The investigation revealed that engineers paid about $4.1 million to Leonel J. Lopez Jr., a Starr County power broker with connections throughout the Rio Grande Valley. Lopez paid nearly $1.4 million to A.C. Cuellar, a former county commissioner who represented Weslaco and other parts of eastern Hidalgo County.
A.C. Cuellar arranged for Quality Ready Mix, a company he co-owned, to pay John Cuellar about $405,000.
“We had come up with a story that I was working with Quality Ready Mix,” John Cuellar said. “Of course, I wasn’t.”
After a lengthy investigation, a federal grand jury indicted John Cuellar, A.C. Cuellar and Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla in 2019. The 74-count indictment charged them with bribery, money laundering and wire fraud.
John Cuellar pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and started cooperating with prosecutors. Other players in the conspiracy also confessed.
Lopez, the alleged mastermind, pleaded guilty to bribery in 2019. He died while awaiting sentencing.
A.C. Cuellar and Quintanilla, however, pleaded not guilty. They demanded a trial, which started on Tuesday with jury selection and opening statements.
John Cuellar spent nearly two hours on the witness stand Wednesday.
Weslaco had aging water and wastewater infrastructure, John Cuellar said, which needed major upgrades.
Two engineering firms, Boston-based CDM and San Antonio-based Briones Consulting & Engineering, wanted the contracts. Lopez became a consultant for the engineers, John Cuellar said, and started handing out cash.
“Nobody had ever been so generous,” John Cuellar said. “For lack of better words.”
A.C. Cuellar received $74,500 from Lopez in 2011, according to tax returns prosecutors showed the jury on Wednesday. Leo Lopez Consulting Inc. paid Cuellar another $485,000 in 2012, $442,500 in 2013 and $301,500 in 2014.
A.C. Cuellar, in turn, put John Cuellar on the Quality Ready Mix payroll.
It was so easy, John Cuellar said, they started to wonder if Lopez was setting them up or wearing a wire. Lopez assured them nobody would find out.
The payments stopped in 2014, when John Cuellar wasn’t re-elected.
John Cuellar, though, still needed the money. He asked A.C. Cuellar about the payments.
“He started to laugh,” John Cuellar said. “I said: ‘Why are you laughing? What’s funny?’”
A.C. Cuellar said he knew it’d be tough, but John Cuellar needed to work.
“I was hurt,” John Cuellar said.
They both knew why the payments had stopped, John Cuellar said, but they didn’t talk about the bribery scheme.
In his cross-examination, attorney Carlos A. Garcia of Mission, who represents A.C. Cuellar, suggested John Cuellar may not be telling the truth.
Both the Cuellar family and the Lozano family, which co-owned Quality Ready Mix, had multiple family members on the payroll.
A.C. Cuellar’s son worked for the company. So did co-owner Lucia E. Lozano’s daughters.
Garcia suggested that A.C. Cuellar put John Cuellar on the payroll to compensate him for years of free legal advice. Garcia also questioned John Cuellar about his work for Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, a law firm that collects delinquent property taxes.
John Cuellar said Linebarger paid him $60,000 a year to maintain the law firm’s relationship with the Weslaco school district. He never reviewed a single contract for Linebarger or appeared in court for the firm.
“And there’s nothing illegal about that, right?” Garcia asked.
“No,” John Cuellar responded.
Garcia also pressed John Cuellar on whether or not he really had an agreement with A.C. Cuellar to support contracts with certain engineers in exchange for cash.
“Other than your word,” Garcia asked, “what evidence do you have that he told you that?”
“Just my word,” John Cuellar responded.