Former Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar, who pocketed nearly $1 million during a conspiracy to bribe members of the Weslaco City Commission, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez sentenced Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr., 69, of Progreso Lakes to 20 years in prison, fined him $915,000 and ordered him to pay $4.1 million in restitution.
“This case has an enormous potential for a deterrent effect,” said William J. Gullotta, a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section who prosecuted the case. “‘Remember what happened in Weslaco.’ That’s what people will say after today.”
Asked if he wanted to make a statement, A.C. Cuellar declined. He was taken into custody after sentencing.
Attorney Carlos A. Garcia of Mission, who represented A.C. Cuellar at trial, called the 20-year sentence a “terrible mistake” that wouldn’t actually deter anyone from committing a crime.
“I disagree with the sentence,” Garcia said. “I think that sentencing him to that amount of time does nothing to better our community. Zero.”
The case against A.C. Cuellar, a gregarious businessman from a prominent family, was part of a federal investigation that focused on corruption in Weslaco.
Prosecutors accused A.C. Cuellar of paying $405,000 to his cousin, City Commissioner John F. Cuellar. In exchange, John Cuellar steered contracts worth more than $50 million to certain engineers.
A.C. Cuellar pleaded not guilty. John Cuellar, though, admitted to accepting bribes — and testified against him.
The jury deliberated for just four hours before finding A.C. Cuellar guilty on bribery, money laundering and wire fraud charges.
“A.C.’s a crook,” said Mike Jones, a former Weslaco resident who suspected A.C. Cuellar had accepted bribes and shared his concerns on Facebook. “And he’s about to go where crooks go.”
In Weslaco, the name Cuellar is synonymous with public service.
A.C. Cuellar’s father, Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Sr., served on the Progreso Lakes Board of Aldermen. His uncle, Dr. Armando Cuellar, served as mayor of Weslaco. Another uncle, Renato Cuellar, served as a state representative.
He followed in their footsteps.
The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court appointed A.C. Cuellar to represent Precinct 1 in March 2010, when County Commissioner Sylvia Handy pleaded guilty in a public corruption case and resigned. He served until November, when Hidalgo County held a special election.
A.C. Cuellar rejoined the Commissioners Court in January 2013 after winning a full, four-year term. He never missed a meeting.
Under his administration, Precinct 1 focused on drainage projects, including a $100 million water management plan. A.C. Cuellar also kept tabs on Weslaco, where John Cuellar served on the City Commission.
At the time, Weslaco had an aging utility system that needed major upgrades.
Weslaco hired CDM Smith, a Boston-based construction and engineering company; San Antonio-based Briones Consulting & Engineering; and McAllen-based LeFevre Environmental & Management Consulting to handle the utility upgrades, which included work on the local water treatment plant.
The contracts, however, were tainted by corruption.
Briones and LeFevre paid more than $4.1 million to Leonel J. Lopez Jr., a Starr County politician with Weslaco connections. Lopez passed along nearly $1.4 million to A.C. Cuellar, who placed John Cuellar on the payroll at Quality Ready Mix, a concrete company based in Corpus Christi.
Quality Ready Mix paid $405,000 to John Cuellar from April 2011 to November 2014, when he left the City Commission.
During the trial, A.C. Cuellar’s son, Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar III, said Quality Ready Mix placed John Cuellar on the payroll to compensate him for providing the family with years of free legal advice.
Jurors didn’t buy the story.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas prosecuted the case with assistance from the Department of Justice Public Integrity Section.
“Our office will not turn a blind eye to public corruption, especially when it results in significant burdens to residents within our district,” Alamdar S. Hamdani, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, said in a statement. “Weslaco was warned for years to upgrade its water infrastructure in order to provide potable water. The defendants used this opportunity to participate in a multi-million dollar scheme that ultimately saddled residents with debt and bribery costs for their drinking water system. We hope the message in today’s sentencings will deter others from committing such crimes and provide some closure to the citizens of Weslaco.”