An attempt to undercut the bribery case against former Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar Jr. backfired spectacularly on Tuesday, when the judge had to interrupt the trial to warn a witness.
Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr., 68, of Progreso Lakes arranged for a company to pay his cousin, former Weslaco City Commissioner John F. Cuellar, more than $400,000 for legal work. Prosecutors, however, believe the payments were actually bribes.
On Tuesday afternoon, A.C. Cuellar Jr.’s son, Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar III, attempted to explain why the company put John Cuellar on the payroll.
“I’m paying him for being there for us,” A.C. Cuellar III said, recounting how John Cuellar had provided the family with free legal advice for years.
Why the company, Quality Ready Mix of Corpus Christi, paid John Cuellar is a key question in the trial.
The investigation, which prosecutors call “Tarnished Water,” revealed several members of the Weslaco City Commission had accepted bribes. In exchange for cash, they steered more than $50 million worth of infrastructure projects to certain engineers.
The engineers paid about $4.1 million to Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel J. Lopez Jr., according to Robin Gray, a forensic accountant employed by the FBI who testified on Tuesday. Lopez passed along nearly $1.4 million to A.C. Cuellar Jr. and nearly $94,000 to businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, 55, of Weslaco.
Quintanilla and A.C. Cuellar Jr. used the money to bribe members of the City Commission, according to the indictment against them.
Three members of the City Commission, including John Cuellar, admitted to accepting bribes. Quintanilla and A.C. Cuellar Jr., though, pleaded not guilty.
They took the case to trial, which started on Oct. 11.
John Cuellar, who testified last week, told the jury he never actually did any legal work for Quality Ready Mix.
“We had come up with a story that I was working with Quality Ready Mix,” John Cuellar said on Oct. 12, when he took the witness stand. “Of course, I wasn’t.”
The payments were actually bribes, John Cuellar said, to approve contracts with certain engineers.
Attorney Carlos A. Garcia of Mission, who represents A.C. Cuellar Jr., started calling witnesses on Tuesday afternoon.
His first witness, Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar III, 46, of Progreso Lakes, said John Cuellar had provided the family with free legal advice for years.
A.C. Cuellar Jr. and A.C. Cuellar III also turned to John Cuellar whenever the family business, J-III Concrete, had problems.
When they needed a lawyer to handle business problems, they called John Cuellar. When they had a zoning problem in Brownsville, they called John Cuellar. And when a J-III Concrete truck careened off the road and hit a house, they called John Cuellar.
“I panic, obviously,” A.C. Cuellar III said, recalling the incident with the truck. “And the first person I call is John. And I ask him: ‘What do I do?’”
They never paid John Cuellar for his legal advice, A.C. Cuellar III said, which occasionally became a point of contention.
“He would tell me that my dad thought he went to school so he could work for free,” A.C. Cuellar III said.
Quality Ready Mix put John Cuellar on the payroll in April 2011 to compensate him for years of free advice, A.C. Cuellar III said. The company, which A.C. Cuellar Jr. co-owned with Lucia E. Lozano, also employed members of the Lozano family.
A.C. Cuellar III said Quality Ready Mix asked John Cuellar to collect about $500,000 from a client, but he didn’t follow through. The company also requested assistance from John Cuellar when Lozano sold her share of the business to the Cuellar family.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr., who is prosecuting the case, quizzed A.C. Cuellar III about the arrangement.
The FBI couldn’t find any evidence John Cuellar ever did any work for the company.
“He did more of, like, quarterbacking something,” A.C. Cuellar III said, explaining why John Cuellar didn’t handle lawsuits and other legal matters himself.
Bobby Lopez asked A.C. Cuellar III if Quality Ready Mix had taken a tax deduction for legal services from John Cuellar, even though the supposed legal services apparently took place years before John Cuellar was hired and involved another company, J-III Concrete.
A.C. Cuellar III said they had.
“Everything is not so transactional as you’re describing it,” A.C. Cuellar III said.
Apparently concerned, U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez interrupted the cross-examination to ask her own question: Did Quality Ready Mix make payments to John Cuellar for advice he’d provided to family members in the past?
A.C. Cuellar III initially said yes, but reversed himself when Alvarez followed up. At that point, Alvarez asked the jury to leave the courtroom so that she could admonish him about potential tax problems.
Garcia, the attorney who represents A.C. Cuellar Jr., asked if they could discuss the issue at the bench, where the conversation wouldn’t be heard by people in the courtroom. Alvarez agreed.
Testimony is scheduled to resume on Wednesday.