Prosecutors raise attorney conflict concern amid Weslaco bribery trial delay

Daniel J. Garcia

McALLEN — Just as federal prosecutors and defense attorneys mutually agreed to request additional time in order to review evidence in the Weslaco water plant bribery case, the government has lodged an allegation that one of those attorneys may have a conflict of interest in representing his client.

In sealed court documents, U.S. Assistant Attorney Roberto Lopez Jr. alleges that defense attorney Clay S. Conrad may have a conflict in continuing to represent his client, Rio Grande City-area lawyer Daniel J. Garcia.

To that end, Lopez, Garcia, Conrad — as well as another of Garcia’s defense attorneys, Gocha Allen Ramirez — went before U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez on Wednesday afternoon, where the judge deliberated whether or not to appoint Garcia conflict counsel to advise him of his options amidst the allegation.

“This is a rather unique situation,” Lopez said, characterizing the issue as a layered “conflict within a conflict” involving Garcia, Conrad and a man both the attorneys and judge referred to simply as “Mr. Villarreal.”

However, it is unclear what the nature of the potential conflict may be. As the motion containing the government’s allegations remains under seal — as do Conrad’s correspondences attempting to address the issue — the attorneys and judge were careful not to divulge too many details in open court.

What was clear, however, was that Alvarez felt the issue warrants further exploration. “I do believe that the matter does require further inquiry,” Alvarez said after posing a hypothetical to the prosecution, the defense and Garcia himself on what course of action would be prudent.

“I don’t believe there’s a conflict,” Conrad said after Alvarez asked him what he thought about appointing conflict counsel to Garcia if she were to decide the matter required further review.

The judge lightly chastened Conrad for not answering the question she had asked before he amended his response to say he believed appointing conflict counsel would be “the most appropriate route.”

After a few more minutes of discussion, Alvarez reiterated her belief that the matter warrants further consideration, adding that her options were to decide herself whether the conflict exists — in which case Conrad would be disqualified as Garcia’s attorney, or if the issue involves only the appearance of conflict, for which the decision to continue retaining Conrad would lie with Garcia.

As she dismissed the attorneys, Conrad asked how her pending decision would affect other hearings in the nearly year-long case. It won’t, Alvarez said.

That’s because progress on the pending trial against Garcia and his two co-defendants Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar and Ricardo Quintanilla has been pushed back several months — to July — after the two sides requested additional time to review approximately 1 terabyte of data, court records show.

Sentencing dates for three men who have already pleaded guilty in the scheme — John Cuellar, Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla and Leonel Lopez Jr. — have also been rescheduled for later dates.

Meanwhile, in the related bribery case against involving Quintanilla and McAllen hotelier Sunil Wadhwani, a hearing has been set for next Wednesday. In that case, prosecutors also allege a potential defense attorney conflict.

The allegation lies against Wadhwani’s attorney, Michael Wynne, who at one point served as Garcia’s attorney during the early part of the water plant investigation.