On Oct. 20, a federal jury unanimously found former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar and Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla guilty of a combined 70 counts of bribery, wire fraud and money laundering in relation to the $38.5 million rehabilitation of Weslaco’s water and sewer infrastructure.

But the two men weren’t the only ones who participated in the scheme. During the eight-year lifespan of the conspiracy, several of Weslaco’s elected officials would become ensnared — accepting millions in bribes in exchange for greenlighting the engineering and construction firms working on the project.

Former Hidalgo Co. commissioner, businessman guilty on all counts in Weslaco bribery trial | MyRGV.com

Weslaco contends that those firms charged inflated prices in order to fund the bribes that went to the co-conspirators. To that end, the city has remained embroiled in a complex civil lawsuit against those companies as it tries to recoup lost costs.

What follows is a comprehensive timeline of the scandal — from the events that would, years later, serve as the impetus for the bribery scheme, to the city’s civil litigation, to the federal criminal investigation and subsequent criminal trial.

Dates shown in green reflect information that was revealed during the course of the eight-day-long trial. Those in purple show key actions taken by the co-conspirators to perpetuate the scheme. These moments were also revealed during trial.

The remainder of the dates reflect what had been uncovered and made public before the trial got underway on Oct. 11, 2022.

2004-2010

2004: The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality notifies Weslaco that its water treatment facilities are exceeding capacity.

2007: The Weslaco City Commission approves $28 million in bonds that will fund the water plant rehabilitation and other projects.

2008: Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar begins receiving a handful of checks from Leonel J. “Leo” Lopez Jr., then the Rio Grande City municipal judge. Lopez also serves as a “consultant” for two engineering firms — San Antonio-based Briones Consulting & Engineering, and Massachusetts-based CDM Smith.

March 18, 2008: The Weslaco City Commission approves a vote “to engage various engineering firms” to begin preliminary work on the water plant project. Regular meeting.

March 25, 2008: The city commission approves its first contract with CDM Smith for professional and engineering services. The city also approves having a “construction manager at risk” as a way to cap costs. Special meeting.

May 2008: The structure of the Weslaco City Commission transitions from four at-large seats and a mayor to six single-member districts and a mayor.

2009: At some point this year, Weslaco businessman Rick Quintanilla receives his first check from Leo Lopez.

May 2009: Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla wins his first election for the District 4 seat on the Weslaco City Commission. Quintanilla, one of Tafolla’s closest friends, serves as campaign manager. At trial, Tafolla testified that Quintanilla introduced him to Leo Lopez for the first time less than a year after his election win.

January 2010 – November 2011: Leo Lopez writes a series of $500 checks to Rick Quintanilla.

August 2010: Sometime before this date, A.C. Cuellar had acquired a 50% ownership interest in Quality Ready Mix, a Corpus Christi concrete company. A.C. and three other partners initially founded the company in 2000.

November 2010: Elizabeth Walker is sworn in as Weslaco city secretary.

2011

2011: Leo Lopez begins paying A.C. Cuellar substantially more money, making regular payments throughout the year that totaled $94,500 as the bribery scheme got underway in earnest.

Jan. 18, 2011: Weslaco approves CDM’s preliminary engineering report with a minimum capital cost of $17 million, including $451,000 for engineering services.

March/April 2011: Weslaco Mayor Pro tem John F. Cuellar, A.C. Cuellar and Lopez first conceive of the cover story that John is a legal adviser to his cousin A.C.’s company, Quality Ready Mix.

April 21, 2011: The date of the first check — for $7,500 — is written from Quality Ready Mix to John Cuellar.

May 2011: Checks from Leo Lopez to A.C. Cuellar increase to $10,000 per check.

Aug. 16, 2011: Weslaco declares the water plant situation an emergency, which paves the way for the city to seek remedies without going through a bidding process.

Sept. 8, 2011: Weslaco approves CDM’s preliminary report and debt capacity study projecting that the project will cost $41.8 million. John Cuellar tells the commission that “it appears cost proportionate.” The commission also authorizes CDM to contract Briones Engineering to design the project. Special meeting.

Oct. 6, 2011: Weslaco awards a no-bid contract to Briones Engineering. Briones is to renovate existing plant, design a new 8 million gallon per day water treatment plant, and a 1-million-gallon storage tank. The city also hires CDM Constructors Inc., a subsidiary of CDM, to do the preconstruction work. Special meeting.

Nov. 10, 2011: Weslaco awards a construction management contract to CDM.

December 2011: Lopez begins paying Quintanilla about $1,000 per check. Jerry Tafolla testified that Quintanilla bribed him by splitting the checks with him.

2011: Throughout this year, Lopez would pay A.C. Cuellar $425,000.

2012

March 27, 2012: CDM Smith states the project will cost a “guaranteed maximum price” of $43.3 million. The city instead approves a $38.5 million GMP subcontract for CDM to serve as “construction manager at risk,” or CMAR, on the project. Special meeting.

April 2012: McAllen-based engineering firm, LeFevre Engineering, writes an $87,000 check to Leo Lopez. The memo line reads, “consulting Briones Engineering.”

June 5, 2012: Weslaco hires LeFevre Engineering to provide professional services to fill the city’s staffing gaps after Weslaco’s in-house planner and engineer had resigned. This contract was not directly affiliated with the water plant project. Regular meeting.

September 2012: Leo Lopez begins writing bribe checks from a business bank account he had opened a month prior. Previously, he had been writing checks from a personal account.

Sept. 20, 2012: Weslaco amends the CMAR contract in order for Briones Engineering to include the addition of a $3.9 million automation software called SCADA. The city was told the software would save money by reducing the number of staff necessary to run the plants. Special meeting. It remains unclear if the automation system was ever implemented.

October 2012: Construction on the water plant project begins, with scheduled completion by late 2014.

Nov. 6, 2012: Richard LeFevre writes an email to Leo Lopez that states, “Hey, we need to do this. It will protect us. Call me.”

2013-2014

July 16, 2013: Briones’ contract is expanded to include an engineering report for the South Wastewater Treatment Plant and other issues. Regular meeting.

May 2, 2014: Weslaco City Secretary Elizabeth Walker emails Public Utility Director David Salinas and Briones Engineering requesting all amendments related to the water treatment plant and wastewater treatment plants as executed.

Sept. 2, 2014: The city commission approves the final engineering report for the South WWTP.

October 2014: Lopez writes his last check to Rick Quintanilla. Lopez paid $26,000 to Quintanilla in 2014 until the scheme began to fall apart.

Nov. 4, 2014: John Cuellar loses his re-election bid for the District 2 seat on the Weslaco City Commission to political newcomer, Gregory P. “Greg” Kerr. Kerr, who had decided to run due to the water plant project’s discrepancies, wins by a 2-to-1 margin.

Nov. 6, 2014: Payments from A.C. Cuellar to John F. Cuellar via QRM stop.

Nov. 24, 2014: The last bribe payment from Lopez to A.C. Cuellar.

2015

Early 2015: Weslaco begins to audit the project, requests records from Briones.

2015: Weslaco appoints Juan E. Gonzalez as city attorney.

Sept. 3, 2015: Weslaco seeks court permission to depose Rolando H. Briones, principal of Briones Engineering, in anticipation of filing a lawsuit against him. The city also asks the court to order Briones to produce all documents he has regarding the water plant project.

Nov. 4, 2015: The state district court orders Briones to turn over project documents.

Dec. 21, 2015: Rolando Briones emails then-City Manager Mike Perez and other Weslaco staffers about past due invoices.

2016

January 2016: Weslaco stops paying Briones Engineering, saying the company has failed to adequately justify its costs.

Jan. 30, 2016: Leo Lopez and Rolando Briones exchange text messages about Weslaco’s decision to stop payment on the project. The pair discuss questions to feed Jerry Tafolla to ask the city commission.

March 1, 2016: Weslaco sues Briones for $3 million, alleging negligence, misrepresentation, fraud and breach of fiduciary duties. At the time of the filing, the construction project is still not complete.

June/July 2016: FBI special agent Jason Malkiewicz moves to the Rio Grande Valley shortly after graduating from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Summer 2016: The FBI is conducting an unrelated investigation into Leo Lopez. Investigators discover checks from Lopez to Briones Consulting and JF Trenching & Paving, dated on Sept. 20, 2012 and April 8, 2013, respectively. These and other financial transactions — such as payments from Lopez to LeFevre Environmental Management, Eberle Materials, Rick Quintanilla and A.C. Cuellar — lead the Bureau to begin investigating the Weslaco water plant project.

July 5, 2016: The FBI “serializes,” or makes official, the start of a criminal investigation into the bribery scheme. The Bureau would go on to code name the investigation, “Tarnished Water.”

Between July and November 2016: A federal grand jury issues new subpoenas for Leo Lopez’s financials to expand on the information the FBI had already gathered. Agent Malkiewicz is also engaged in “covertly” investigating the bribery scheme.

2017

Jan. 25, 2017: The FBI reaches out to the Texas Ethics Commission to learn about the role of lobbyists in local government.

March 2017: FBI agents travel to San Francisco to interview former CDM employee Mari Garza-Bird, who had delivered many of the water plant project presentations to the Weslaco City Commission.

May 2017: The government obtains an ex parte court order for the tax records of Richard LeFevre, Rolando Briones and A.C. Cuellar.

Late 2017: John Cuellar testifies that this is when his cousin, A.C. Cuellar, began to suspect the FBI was investigating.

September 2017: Investigators receive the tax records they had requested in May. IRS criminal investigator Sonia Hurtado begins analyzing them.

Late October 2017: The FBI approaches Richard LeFevre for an initial interview.

November 2017: The FBI approaches Leo Lopez and Rolando Briones for initial interviews. Their attempts to speak with Briones were unsuccessful, so they issue a subpoena.

November 2017 – July 2018: The FBI is conducting more overt investigation into the bribery scheme during this period.

December 2017: Lopez, whom federal prosecutors referred to as the “mastermind” of the bribery scheme, has agreed to cooperate with the government by this point.

2018

Early 2018: Grand jury subpoenas begin going out. The government would go on to issue nearly 120 grand jury subpoenas related to the case.

January 18, 2018: Weslaco and Briones agree to a $1.9 million settlement.

February 2018: FBI interviews John and A.C. Cuellar on the same day to avoid either one tipping off the other. In court, the defense said these interviews happened on Jan. 26, 2018. FBI special agent David Roncska allegedly tells Agent Malkiewicz to “pound his ass” after getting nowhere in John Cuellar’s interview.

March 2018: Leo Lopez, Rick Quintanilla and Jerry Tafolla meet at a Mexican restaurant to discuss what cover story they would use to obfuscate the bribery scheme. Lopez agreed to wear a wire for the FBI and recorded the conversation.

March 21, 2018: FBI interviews Jerry Tafolla for the first time inside the conference room at a business owned Weslaco Mayor David Suarez. Suarez is also interviewed in that conference room by the FBI that same day.

April 2018: The FBI subpoenas the city of Weslaco. The subpoena is served on City Secretary Elizabeth Walker.

April 3, 2018: The FBI subpoenas John Cuellar. QRM is also subpoenaed around this date.

April 4, 2018: FBI agents travel to Corpus Christi to interview Lucy Lozano and other Quality Ready Mix employees.

Summer 2018: The FBI conducts interviews with numerous Weslaco city officials, according to FBI special agent Jason Malkiewicz.

Oct. 25, 2018: Weslaco sues CDM Smith, Briones Consulting, Rolando H. Briones, LeFevre Engineering & Management, A.C. and John Cuellar, Rick Quintanilla, and Leonel J. Lopez Jr.

Nov. 19, 2018: The FBI interviews Jerry Tafolla again and show him a so-called “proffer” agreement. A proffer allows a person under criminal investigation to provide information to the prosecution in exchange for that information not being used against them later. Tafolla and his attorney ask for time to think about it.

Nov. 20, 2018: Prosecutors present the case to a federal grand jury. Just before the confidential hearing gets underway, Tafolla meets with the government and agrees to sign the proffer agreement.

December 2018: A grand jury subpoena is served on the city of Weslaco, according to City Attorney Juan E. Gonzalez.

2019

Jan. 10, 2019: The FBI attempts to approach Rick Quintanilla for an interview and to execute a search warrant for his phone and a subpoena. Agents surveil Quintanilla’s house and attempt — but fail — to make contact.

Jan. 17, 2019: In response to the FBI subpoena, Weslaco seeks court permission to turn over documents from its first civil lawsuit against Briones Consulting.

February 2019: The FBI interviews John Cuellar.

March 21, 2019: Jerry Tafolla is again interviewed by the FBI.

March 21, 2019: Federal prosecutors file a charging document known as a “criminal information” against Leo Lopez, charging him with one count of federal programs bribery.

March 22, 2019: Lopez waives his right to being charged via grand jury indictment, and instead pleads guilty to the criminal information. He agrees to forfeit $2.5 million.

March 25, 2019: After reaching a settlement with Weslaco the previous year, the first lawsuit against Briones Engineering is officially closed.

March 26, 2019: An indictment against Ricardo Quintanilla is filed under seal.

March 28, 2019: Ricardo Quintanilla is arrested.

March 28, 2019: A state district judge denies Weslaco’s motion to turn court documents over to the FBI.

March 29, 2019: The FBI speaks with Tafolla again.

April 1, 2019: Tafolla, who was then still serving as the District 4 Weslaco city commissioner, pleads not guilty to federal programs bribery.

April 5, 2019: Federal agents arrest A.C. Cuellar, John Cuellar and Daniel J. Garcia, a private attorney from Rio Grande City.

April 8, 2019: Tafolla reaches a plea deal with prosecutors and changes his plea to guilty to federal programs bribery. He awaits sentencing.

April 9, 2019: A 74-count superseding indictment is filed against Quintanilla, Garcia, and John and A.C. Cuellar.

April 18, 2019: All four plead not guilty to the superseding indictment.

April 23, 2019: Tafolla resigns from his seat on the Weslaco City Commission.

May 15, 2019: Tafolla has another meeting with the FBI and/or federal prosecutors.

May 29, 2019: The case against Quintanilla, Garcia, and the two Cuellars is officially given a “complex” designation due to multiple defendants and what prosecutors call “voluminous” evidence. Trial is tentatively set for December 2019.

June 18, 2019: The FBI interviews John Cuellar.

June 27, 2019: The FBI interviews John Cuellar.

July 2, 2019: The FBI interviews John Cuellar.

Aug. 2, 2019: John Cuellar reaches plea agreement with prosecutors and pleads guilty to count 1 of the 61 counts against him, conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud. He awaits sentencing.

Aug. 8, 2019: Rick Quintanilla pays an early morning visit to Juan E. Gonzalez’s Weslaco law office and tells the attorney to tell the FBI that the pair have a consulting relationship. Gonzalez, who testified that he felt Quintanilla was asking him to perjure himself, reported the conversation to federal prosecutors that same morning.

Aug. 26, 2019: A state district judge denies CDM Smith’s motion to dismiss Weslaco’s civil lawsuit under the Texas Citizens Participation Act. CDM appeals to the 13th Court of Appeals.

Oct. 7, 2019: Former Weslaco city commissioner David Fox pleads guilty to perjury for lying to a federal grand jury when asked if he had accepted at least $2,000 in bribes in exchange for his favorable votes.

Oct. 9, 2019: McAllen hotelier Sunil Wadhwani is charged with bribery of Weslaco officials in order to receive a $300,000 economic incentive to build a Motel 6 in Weslaco.

Oct. 10, 2019: Rick Quintanilla is also charged in the scheme with Wadhwani. A 14-page, 2-count indictment against the pair is also unsealed.

Oct. 10, 2019: In federal court, prosecutors officially declare that the water plant and hotel bribery schemes are related.

October 24, 2019: The federal judge announces that the water plant trial date will be delayed until February 2020. The trial date would go on to be repeatedly pushed back as COVID-19 takes over the country beginning in March 2020.

Early December 2019: Federal prosecutors conduct trial preparations with witnesses, including John Cuellar and Jerry Tafolla, as well as FBI financial analysts. But the trial, which was slated to begin days later, gets pushed back.

Dec. 3, 2019: The FBI interviews John Cuellar.

Dec. 4, 2019: Weslaco City Attorney Juan E. Gonzalez is interviewed by federal prosecutors and the FBI.

2020

May 22, 2020: Sunil Wadhwani changes his plea to guilty and admits to paying at least $4,000 in bribes to Weslaco public officials. Wadhwani awaits sentencing; however, a trial date has yet to be set for Quintanilla, who pleaded not guilty during his 2019 arraignment.

May/June 2020: Lucia “Lucy” Lozano sells her 50% ownership of QRM to Arturo Cuellar III, son of A.C. Cuellar.

November 4, 2020: Federal prosecutors file an emergency motion to preserve Leo Lopez’s testimony via deposition. Lopez is expected to be the prosecution’s chief witness.

November 10, 2020: The federal judge denies the government’s motion to depose Lopez.

November 14, 2020: Lopez dies of cancer at the age of 54.

2021

March 25, 2021: The Texas 13th Court of Appeals denies CDM Smith’s appeal to have Weslaco’s civil lawsuit dismissed. CDM appeals to the Texas Supreme Court.

July, October 2021: The Texas Supreme Court twice denies CDM’s petition for rehearing. The lawsuit is sent back to the 139th state District Court where it was originally filed.

August, December 2021: The Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 prompt further delays to setting a trial date in the federal criminal case.

December 28, 2021: Federal prosecutors announce they are dropping charges against Daniel J. Garcia. The charges are officially dismissed the following day.

2022

April 18, 2022: The FBI interviews John Cuellar.

June 13, 2022: The federal court announces there will be no more delays. Sets jury selection for Oct. 11.

Oct. 7, 2022: The court holds a final status conference before trial and announces around 50 people have been summoned for jury duty. Neither Daniel J. Garcia nor the Motel 6 bribery scheme are to be mentioned during the water plant trial.

Oct. 11, 2022: The FBI speaks with John Cuellar. The same day, a jury is empaneled and the trial against A.C. Cuellar and Rick Quintanilla begins. The prosecution and defense make opening arguments. The government calls its first witness, former Weslaco City Secretary Elizabeth Walker.

Oct. 13, 2022: Day 2 of trial. Elizabeth Walker continues her testimony, then the prosecution calls seven additional witnesses:

>> Bethena Dasher, a representative from web.com
>> Fred Reyes, an accountant with the city of Weslaco
>> Thomas Wayne Petras, director of facilities for Victoria National Bank
>> John F. Cuellar, former Weslaco mayor pro-tem. John Cuellar testified against his cousin, A.C., and stated that A.C. paid him $405,000 in bribes.
>> Lucia E. “Lucy” Lozano, who previously held a 50% ownership stake in Quality Ready Mix. Lozano testifies about her knowledge of the checks A.C. Cuellar directed QRM to write to his cousin, John Cuellar.
>> Juan Gonzalez, Weslaco city attorney and former friend of Rick Quintanilla. Gonzalez testified that Quintanilla had asked him to perjure himself.
>> Sonia Hurtado, an IRS criminal investigator. Hurtado testifies to the contents of the personal tax returns of A.C. Cuellar.

Oct. 14, 2022: Day 3 of trial. The prosecution calls three witnesses:

>> Sonia Hurtado. In her second day of testimony, Hurtado testifies to the contents of the personal tax returns for Rick Quintanilla.
>> Juan Javier Barrios, chief credit officer at Lone Star National Bank, where Leo Lopez had an account, and where Quintanilla cashed his checks from Lopez.
>> Jerry Tafolla. The former commissioner testified against his lifelong friend, Rick Quintanilla, and stated that Quintanilla had paid him cash bribes.

Oct. 15, 2022: Day 4 of trial. The defense spends the entire day cross examining Tafolla.

Oct. 17, 2022: Day 5 of trial. The prosecution calls one witness, FBI special agent Jason Malkiewicz, who led the investigation.

Oct. 18, 2022: Day 6 of trial. The prosecution calls its final witness, FBI forensic analyst Robin Gray, who testified about the flow of funds during the bribery conspiracy. Afterward, the prosecution rests its case. Carlos A. Garcia, who represents A.C. Cuellar, begins the defense’s rebuttal by calling A.C.’s son, Arturo Cuellar III, to the stand.

Oct. 19, 2022: Day 7 of trial. Garcia calls his final defense witness to the stand, FBI special agent David L. Roncska. Jaime Peña, who represents Quintanilla, calls no witnesses in defense of his client. The defense rests its case.

Oct. 20, 2022: The prosecution and defense make their closing arguments. The jury is given their instructions and begin to deliberate just after 12:15 p.m. They return at about 4:15 p.m. with a verdict of guilty on all counts as to both defendants.

Nov. 1, 2022: The federal court is set to determine the amount of money Quintanilla and A.C. Cuellar must surrender in asset forfeiture.

2023

Jan. 18, 2023: Rick Quintanilla, A.C. and John Cuellar are slated to be sentenced.

Jan. 19, 2023: Jerry Tafolla and David Fox are slated to be sentenced.


Editor’s note: This story was updated Oct. 30, 2022, with additional information from the case. The headline has been changed to reflect the update.