Officials accused in Weslaco bribery scheme plead not guilty

John Cuellar, Daniel Garcia and A.C. Cuellar Jr. were arrested by the FBI on the morning of Friday, April 5, 2019, believed to be in connection with a bribery investigation in Weslaco.

McALLEN — Four of the defendants in the Weslaco bribery scheme pleaded not guilty here Thursday afternoon to allegations that they participated in a plot to pay off city officials to benefit engineering companies.

Ricardo Quintanilla (Courtesy of CBS 4)

Former Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr., former District 2 Weslaco City Commissioner John Cuellar, Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel Garcia and Weslaco businessman Ricardo Quintanilla crowded, with their respective attorneys, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter E. Ormsby to deny allegations of bribery, wire fraud and money laundering.

The group are accused of participating in a scheme to funnel approximately $4 million in bribes from three companies to two Weslaco city commissioners, one of them being John Cuellar. In exchange, the city commissioners allegedly took official actions to benefit those companies, including voting to award them contracts for the project to overhaul the Weslaco water treatment facilities.

Thursday’s hearing was the second arraignment for Quintanilla who was arrested on March 28 on an 18-count indictment, which included charges of bribery and wire fraud. He pleaded not guilty to those charges April 1.

However, the superseding indictment that was unsealed last week brought new, similar charges against him related to the scheme.

Two other defendants in the case pleaded guilty to their charges in recent weeks.

Former Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel Lopez Jr., who is accused of orchestrating the scheme, and Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla, the District 4 Weslaco city commissioner accused of accepting bribes, each pleaded guilty to a count of federal program bribery and are scheduled to be sentenced in July.

Following his plea, Tafolla resigned from the city commission last week. The commission has not yet formally accepted the resignation.

Carlos A. Garcia, the attorney representing A.C. Cuellar, said after the hearing that the actions his client took were “legal, innocent behavior” and that there was never a plan between Cuellar or anybody to commit a crime.

Garcia also told the judge there was discussion among the attorneys about designating the case as complex, which would exempt it from the rules set by the Speedy Trial Act.

A case is allowed those exceptions when it “is so unusual or complex” because of the number of defendants, the nature of the prosecution, the existence of novel questions of fact or law, or because it would be unreasonable to expect adequate preparation within the time limits set within federal law, according to Title 18 of the U.S. Code.

The number of documents involved in the case is said to be “voluminous,” according to a motion for a protective order filed Wednesday. Totaling more than 100,000 pages, the motion states the materials include reports of interviews, complicated bank transactions, records of the Weslaco City Commission, complex construction contracts and 120 recordings of the defendants and witnesses.

It was too early to say whether he was in favor of that designation, Garcia said, but he added the case likely would be classified as such.

Jury selection for Quintanilla’s trial is tentatively set for May 7 while jury selection for the other three defendants is scheduled for June.

However, those dates, Ormsby said, will likely be pushed back.

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High-profile bribery arrests cement long-held suspicions in Weslaco