Key witness struggles to remember details in Weslaco water treatment plant corruption trial
Former Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla spent Friday on the witness stand, attempting to answer questions about how, exactly, a businessman bribed him.
Tafolla — who served on the City Commission from 2009 to 2019 — testified for more than five hours Friday in the Weslaco water treatment plant corruption trial.
“I’m here to say the truth,” Tafolla said. “And that’s it.”
Tafolla is the star witness against businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, 55, of Weslaco.
When he appeared in court, though, Tafolla struggled to answer questions and didn’t provide many details.
Tafolla couldn’t remember when he started accepting bribes, when he stopped accepting bribes or how much cash he received.
“I can’t remember the exact amount,” Tafolla said, although he guessed the total fell between $10,000 and $15,000.
Tafolla, who claimed Quintanilla cashed checks and split the money with him, struggled to remember which bank they visited. He referred to Weslaco City Commissioner J.P. Rodriguez as J.R. Rodriguez. And he couldn’t recall what he told the FBI or when.
In some instances, Tafolla appeared not to understand the questions posed by the prosecutor or attorneys for the defendants. In others, he didn’t answer directly. He also had difficulty with some of the words used by attorneys, including “proponent.”
Tafolla and Quintanilla became friends in the 1990s, when Tafolla went through a divorce.
When Tafolla needed work, Quintanilla found him a job. When Tafolla started planning a quinceañera for his daughter, Quintanilla contributed. And when Tafolla decided to run for a City Commission seat, Quintanilla managed his campaign.
The trouble started after Tafolla joined the City Commission.
Engineers wanted Weslaco to approve more than $50 million in contracts to upgrade water and wastewater treatment plants.
They paid about $4.1 million to Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel J. Lopez Jr., a local power broker.
Lopez passed along nearly $86,000 to Quintanilla and nearly $1.4 million to Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C” Cuellar Jr., 68, of Progreso Lakes, according to the federal indictment against them. After he received the money, Quintanilla allegedly bribed Tafolla.
The indictment charged Quintanilla and Cuellar with bribery, money laundering and wire fraud. They pleaded not guilty.
Tafolla, however, struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to bribery. He returned to court Thursday and Friday to testify against Quintanilla.
Tafolla said he met with Lopez and Quintanilla to discuss the water treatment plant. After the meeting, Quintanilla told Tafolla that Lopez would pay to get the project approved, Tafolla said. They agreed to split the money.
Lopez wrote 41 checks to Quintanilla from September 2011 to October 2014, which totaled $85,950, according to the indictment.
During cross-examination, attorney Jaime Peña of McAllen, who represents Quintanilla, suggested that Tafolla had changed his story.
Tafolla acknowledged that he lied to FBI agents in 2018, before he pleaded guilty, but said he later came clean.
Peña also questioned Tafolla about a video Lopez recorded for the FBI.
The video shows Tafolla, Quintanilla and Lopez meeting in a restaurant.
Lopez tells Tafolla and Quintanilla he’s concerned about social media posts that claim he made $1.5 million on the Weslaco project.
In the video, which prosecutors showed the jury on Thursday afternoon, Lopez said he’s worried the “feds” might start asking questions.
Lopez, who had started cooperating with the FBI, apparently brought up the social media posts as part of a plan to trick Tafolla and Quintanilla into making incriminating statements.
Quintanilla suggested they claim the payments involved business in Mexico.
In his questions, Peña suggested the conversation about a cover story actually involved a lawsuit Weslaco had filed against Briones Consulting & Engineering, which designed the water treatment plant.
Lopez, Quintanilla and Tafolla discussed the lawsuit in the recording.
Weslaco Mayor David Suarez wanted to know the names of consultants and contractors that worked for Briones so Weslaco could sue them too, Peña said. Briones had paid Lopez, and Lopez had paid Quintanilla. If they came up with a cover story, they might avoid being sued.
“What you were really talking about was the civil litigation, right?” Peña asked.
“Yes,” Tafolla responded, contradicting what he said just hours before.
Testimony in the case is scheduled to continue Monday.