Pandemic fuels questions in Weslaco bribery case

Prosecutors ask judge to weigh in on July trial date feasibility

Federal prosecutors want to know how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect their plans to take three men to trial on charges that they spent years conspiring together to profit off the $38.5 million rehabilitation of the Weslaco water treatment plant.

To that end, U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez handed down an order Tuesday agreeing to the government’s request for a status hearing on the case, which is set for jury selection on July 7. The parties will meet for that status conference — in person, or via videoconference — on June 16, the order reads.

The three defendants awaiting their days in court include former Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar, Weslaco businessman Ricardo Quintanilla, and Daniel J. Garcia, an attorney from Rio Grande City.

The three men face a litany of charges outlined in a 74-count superseding indictment that was unsealed last April. The 34-page indictment includes allegations of wire fraud, bribery, money laundering and violations of the Travel Act, among others.

A fourth defendant — former District 2 Weslaco City Commissioner John Cuellar — has since pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud after reaching a deal with prosecutors in October. John Cuellar, who is cousins with A.C. Cuellar, is set to be sentenced July 22.

The government alleges the defendants conspired together to skim millions of dollars from the water plant rehabilitation project for their own personal profit. The scheme — which spanned from 2008 to 2016 — allegedly involved at least three construction firms, pay-for-play voting by Weslaco elected officials, and laundering money to co-conspirators through shell consulting firms, as well as an attorney trust bank account, according to the indictment.

PANDEMIC RIPPLES

In the government’s May 22 request for a status hearing, the government says both prosecutors and the defense have continued to prepare as normal for a July trial and do not expect to file for continuances, but worry how the ongoing pandemic will affect the presentation of “a significant amount of exhibits,” as well as potential travel limitations for both attorneys and witnesses who do not live in the area.

“However, the parties are also keenly aware of the limitations that the pandemic has placed upon judicial proceedings,” the government’s motion reads.

“(T)he parties would respectfully request a status hearing to inquire regarding the Court’s anticipated trial structure or proceedings, if any, in the event that the pandemic continues into June,” the motion continues.

Along with local prosecutors from the McAllen division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, the case is being tried by attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section who office out of Washington.

The pandemic has slowed courthouse activity significantly. In late March, the McAllen division’s three district judges ordered the 30-day suspension of the grand jury. A grand jury has not been convened in McAllen since.

All jury trials have thus far been delayed, as well. What court activity remains has moved to the virtual realm, with defendants being given the option to sign waivers in order to appear for hearings and sentencings via videoconference.

And on April 3, the courthouse was closed to the public, though hearings remain similarly accessible via telephonic access.

Any delays spurred by the pandemic will only add to what is already a complex case — officially designated as such precisely a year ago when prosecutors successfully argued that the case against the then-four defendants involved “voluminous” evidence which required more careful consideration than could reasonably be accomplished within the Speedy Trial Act’s 70-day deadline for bringing a case before a jury.

“I don’t believe I’ve had a case that has had more evidence than this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. said during a May 29, 2019 hearing to declare the case complex.

Since then, Lopez has made repeated reference to the staggering amount of evidence in the case, including in hearings that occurred just before the pandemic began.

THE CASE NOW

One defendant — Daniel J. Garcia — initially argued against the complex designation.

In the intervening months, Garcia has sought to have the case dismissed, citing, alternately, his minimal involvement in the alleged scheme and — most recently — arguing that the government had laid charges against him after the expiration of the five-year statute of limitations.

Garcia, through his defense attorney Clay Conrad, filed a bevy of motions on March 17, including a motion to dismiss due to the statute of limitations.

He also filed several motions asking the court to order the government to turn over various documents and evidence, including exculpatory evidence, statements made by co-conspirators and witnesses, any recordings from electronic surveillance, records regarding the bona fides of potential expert witnesses, and any agreements prosecutors have made with witnesses.

Last week, Judge Alvarez responded to the motions in two orders handed down May 21.

Alvarez denied the motion to dismiss, saying Garcia had incorrectly interpreted the sole legal precedent used to bolster his motion.

Garcia argued the government must prove that he, himself, had committed “an overt act” within the five years before the indictment. “This is not the law,” Alvarez wrote in her denial.

Instead, the government must only prove that an overt act occurred “‘…by one of the conspirators within [the five-year statutory] period in furtherance of the conspiratorial agreement,’” Alvarez wrote.

“The Government has alleged such in the indictment; whether it can prove such will be determined at trial,” she wrote.

In regard to the other 10 motions Garcia filed in March, Alvarez struck all of them for failing to follow her previous orders regarding discovery.

The judge also admonished the defendant’s attorney for filing the motions, threatening to sanction him. “Since Garcia’s counsel has chosen to disregard the Court’s order not once, but twice, he is nor (sic) ordered to show cause for his failure to comply,” Alvarez wrote in a separate order. “The Court warns counsel that a ‘ generic I’m sorry’ response is not acceptable,” she wrote.

SIMILAR SCHEMES

Meanwhile, a trial date has yet to be set in a separate bribery case wherein Quintanilla is also a defendant. Prosecutors say the two cases are related.

In that case, as with the water plant case, Quintanilla is accused of facilitating bribe payments between Weslaco officials and business stakeholders — namely with McAllen hotelier Sunil Wadhwani, who was named as a codefendant when the two-count indictment was unsealed in October.

Quintanilla has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Last week, Wadhwani reached a plea deal with prosecutors, admitting to his role in a scheme to bribe public officials in exchange for securing a $300,000 economic incentive agreement on his Motel 6 construction project. As part of his guilty plea, Wadhwani admitted to paying at least $4,000 in bribes to former District 4 Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla.

The government’s prosecution of the alleged water plant bribery conspiracy first became public knowledge last March when Tafolla and another man — former Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel “Leo” Lopez Jr. — each pleaded guilty to federal programs bribery just days before the superseding indictment against the other men was unsealed.

Both men still await sentencing.

During Wadhwani’s rearraignment hearing on May 22, the government identified Tafolla as the “Commissioner A” listed in that indictment and Leo Lopez as “Person B.” The pair have also been implicated in the water plant case.

In previous hearings in the hotel case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bobby Lopez has indicated Leo Lopez will be one of the government’s key witnesses in that case.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to correct a typographical error.