Weslaco water plant bribery trial slated to begin Tuesday

Criminal case part of larger story

LEFT: An operator at the Weslaco Water Treatment Plant looks at the water on the plants' third clarifier on May 17, 2013, in Weslaco. (Nathan Lambrecht | The Monitor). RIGHT (TOP): Arturo “A.C” Cuellar. RIGHT (BOTTOM): Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla.

McALLEN — More than three years after federal prosecutors unsealed a 74-count superseding indictment against a cadre of men accused of bilking Weslaco out of millions, the trial against the defendants is at last set to begin.

Jury selection in the trial against former Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C” Cuellar and Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday.

The pair were part of what prosecutors claim was a far-reaching bribery scheme that stretched from 2008 to 2016 and allegedly involved numerous public officials who sought to make a payday from the $38.5 million rehabilitation of Weslaco’s water and wastewater treatment facilities.

But the allegations go far beyond what prosecutors have set forth in their 34-page superseding indictment.

TIMELINE: The long history of an alleged conspiracy

While Quintanilla and Cuellar await the start of trial on Tuesday, the city of Weslaco continues to contend with civil litigation involving the firms that were tasked with the massive infrastructure project — CDM Smith, a Massachusetts-based construction firm with a global footprint, and Briones Consulting and Engineering Ltd., a San Antonio-based firm.

And though the two men maintain their innocence, over the past several years, several people that were allegedly part of the conspiracy have since pleaded guilty to their roles in the scheme and await sentencing.


The indictment against Cuellar and Quintanilla serves as a detailed outline for what prosecutors think took place during the scheme.

In it, A.C. Cuellar allegedly used his close ties to influence his cousin John Cuellar — a private practice attorney who sat on the Weslaco City Commission for nearly two decades — into guiding how the commission and the Economic Development Corporation of Weslaco voted on the water plant project.

John Cuellar, as the most senior member of the city commission, and as its “de facto leader” of the commission majority — which included District 4 commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla — was able to steer the votes in favor of three particular companies.

A.C. Cuellar — along with Quintanilla — allegedly paid bribes to his cousin and other Weslaco elected officials in order to secure their favorable votes.

That bribe money allegedly came to them from Leonel J. “Leo” Lopez, then the Rio Grande City municipal judge.

Prosecutors say Lopez accepted $4.1 million from Briones Engineering — identified in the indictment as “Company B” and a McAllen engineering company identified as “Company C.”

Lopez kept some of that money for himself, while disbursing the rest to A.C. Cuellar and Quintanilla, who would allegedly bribe others in turn.

The indictment states that Lopez wrote nearly $1.4 million in checks to A.C. Cuellar, who in turn, paid his cousin, John Cuellar, about $405,000 via “Company D, disguised as payments for legitimate legal services.”

Company D is identified as based in Corpus Christi and partly owned by A.C. Cuellar.

Meanwhile, the indictment alleges that the payments Quintanilla received from Lopez went to bribe Tafolla in exchange for his votes favorable to CDM Smith — identified in the indictment as “Company A” — as well as Briones Engineering and Company C.

A third man — Daniel J. Garcia, a private attorney from Rio Grande City — was also named in the indictment. He was accused of funneling $90,000 in bribes through his attorney trust account.

All charges against Garcia were subsequently dismissed in December 2021.


While the government was building its case against the four men, others who were tied to the scheme pleaded guilty to their roles.

Both Lopez and Tafolla pleaded guilty to one count each of federal programs bribery just days before the superseding indictment against the two Cuellars, Quintanilla and Garcia was unsealed.

At the time, Tafolla served as the District 4 Weslaco city commissioner. He resigned from the post in late April 2019.

In August of that year, John Cuellar reached a plea agreement with the government.

John Cuellar faced 61 counts ranging from wire fraud, to money laundering and racketeering. But rather than face trial, the attorney reached a deal to plead guilty to count 1 of the indictment — conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud — in exchange for the dismissal of the remaining counts against him.

Both he and Tafolla currently await sentencing.

The following month — on Oct. 7, 2019 — former Weslaco city commissioner David Fox pleaded guilty to perjury for lying to the grand jury when asked if he had accepted bribes in exchange for his votes.


Early on in the case, prosecutors spoke of just how massive it was. In a May 2019 hearing to declare the case “complex” prosecutors described the amount of evidence involved as “voluminous.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. said the investigation involved more than 100,000 pages of documents, 12 bankers’ boxes of files, numerous audio cassette recordings from Weslaco’s public meetings, and more.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys would go on to spend months exchanging extensive amounts of discovery materials.

The complexity of materials that needed sifting through was enough to prompt a delay to the original December 2019 trial date. But then, the COVID-19 pandemic — and subsequent more virulent strains of the virus — forced additional delays throughout 2020 and 2021.

In November 2020, the government was forced to reassess its prosecution strategy after its key witness, Leo Lopez, died after a short battle with an aggressive cancer.

Just four days prior, the federal judge denied the prosecution’s request to conduct a deathbed deposition with the former municipal judge.


Meanwhile, prosecutors allege the water plant bribery scheme was not the only one carried out in Weslaco.

In mid-October 2019, Quintanilla and another man, McAllen hotelier Sunil Wadhwani, were indicted on federal charges related to the 2013 construction of a Motel 6.

In that indictment, Quintanilla is accused of serving as an intermediary to pay bribes on behalf of Wadhwani in order to secure a $300,000 economic incentive from the Economic Development Corporation of Weslaco.

Quintanilla has pleaded not guilty in this case, as well; however, in May 2020, Wadhwani changed his plea to guilty and admitted to paying at least $4,000 in bribes. He awaits sentencing.

While the federal criminal cases continue to progress, the city of Weslaco has taken actions of its own.

The city has filed two separate civil lawsuits against the companies it hired to carry out the water plant project.

In January 2018, the city reached a $1.9 million settlement with Briones Engineering.

A few months later, Weslaco filed a second lawsuit against Briones. In this second suit, the city also named CDM Smith, the two Cuellars, Tafolla, and Leo Lopez as defendants. It also named a third company, LeFevre Engineering & Management.

CDM tried to have the lawsuit tossed based on the Texas Citizens Participation Act, the state’s anti-SLAPP law meant to dissuade frivolous litigation.

But the court ruled against CDM. The company’s appeals to the 13th Court of Appeals and Texas Supreme Court proved equally fruitless and the lawsuit has since been remanded back to the 139th state District Court where it was originally filed.

It is tentatively set for trial in August 2023.

To view the yearslong history behind the allegations, check out our timeline here: 

TIMELINE: The long history of an alleged conspiracy