A jury convicted former Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar and businessman Ricardo Quintanilla on bribery, money laundering and wire fraud charges Thursday in the Weslaco water treatment plant corruption case.
After an eight-day trial, the jury took just four hours to find Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr., 68, of Progreso Lakes and businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, 55, of Weslaco guilty on all 70 charges against them.
“The citizens of Weslaco really took a hit during the water plant ordeal,” said Weslaco Mayor David Suarez, who described how the project saddled residents with huge utility bills. “And today justice was served for the citizens of Weslaco.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. prosecuted the case with assistance from William J. Gullotta and Marco A. Palmieri, trial attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section. Neither the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas nor the Public Integrity Section could immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
Attorney Carlos A. Garcia of Mission, who represented A.C. Cuellar, said he was surprised by the speedy decision.
“I thought it was unfortunate. I think it took longer for the court to read the charge,” Garcia said. “If they came back with a verdict that quickly, then they may have had their minds made up before they even started deliberations.”
Objections from prosecutors stopped Garcia and attorney Jaime Peña of McAllen, who represented Quintanilla, from showing the jury certain evidence.
“I’m not blaming the jury. The jury got the evidence that they got,” Garcia said. “They didn’t get to hear the evidence that I wanted to present nor that I believe that the law provides is admissible. I probably would have come to the same conclusion if I didn’t get the evidence that we had.”
Peña said he agreed with Garcia.
“I second his sentiments,” Peña said, adding that Quintanilla may appeal, calling it: “Definitely something that we’re going to be looking at based on the rulings of the court.”
The investigation, which prosecutors called “Tarnished Water,” was among the biggest public corruption cases in Hidalgo County during the past decade. It focused on Weslaco, which paid more than $50 million to engineers for work on local water and wastewater treatment plants.
San Antonio-based Briones Consulting & Engineering and McAllen-based LeFevre Environmental & Management Consulting passed along more than $4.1 million to Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel J. Lopez Jr., a Starr County politician widely known as “Leo.” Subcontractors on the Weslaco projects, including JF Trenching & Paving Construction of Rio Grande City and Eberle Materials of Donna, also paid him.
Leo Lopez, meanwhile, had written checks to A.C. Cuellar and Quintanilla.
The FBI, which reviewed Leo Lopez’s bank records as part of another investigation, flagged the payments in 2016.
FBI Special Agent Jason Malkiewicz, a rookie assigned to the public corruption squad, caught the case. He spent hundreds of hours reviewing bank statements, Weslaco City Commission meeting minutes and other records.
The FBI and the IRS interviewed Leo Lopez in November 2017.
During the interview, an IRS agent suggested Leo Lopez’s wife, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, could be charged with a crime because they filed joint tax returns.
Leo Lopez became a government informant. On at least two occasions, he recorded conversations with co-conspirators.
After reviewing more bank records, the FBI discovered that A.C. Cuellar had put his cousin, Weslaco City Commissioner John F. Cuellar, on the payroll at Quality Ready Mix, a business he co-owned.
A.C. Cuellar received nearly $1.4 million from Leo Lopez, according to trial testimony, and Quality Ready Mix paid $405,000 to John Cuellar.
Agents also interviewed Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla, who said Quintanilla cashed checks from Leo Lopez and split the money with him.
Quintanilla received nearly $94,000 from Leo Lopez, according to trial testimony. Tafolla said he didn’t remember exactly how much Quintanilla paid him, but estimated that he received $10,000 to $15,000.
Garcia, the attorney who represented A.C. Cuellar, said his client never bribed anyone.
After the FBI discovered the payments, Garcia said, they pressured John Cuellar to plead guilty and say whatever prosecutors wanted. Garcia compared the government to a jealous lover.
“No matter what you show them or tell them, their mind is made up — you’re cheating and I know it,” Garcia said in his closing argument.
Peña, the attorney who represented Quintanilla, made similar points. In his closing argument, Peña said the government created the case by threatening witnesses and cherry-picking evidence.
“This case has been about a false accusation against Mr. Quintanilla,” Peña said.
Bobby Lopez, the federal prosecutor, said A.C. Cuellar and Quintanilla had participated in a sophisticated bribery scheme. Weslaco paid engineers, who paid Leo Lopez, who paid A.C. Cuellar and Quintanilla, who paid members of the City Commission.
“Follow the money,” Bobby Lopez said in his closing argument. “The money talks.”
Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 18. A.C. Cuellar and Quintanilla face a maximum of 20 years in federal prison on the most serious charges against them.