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

Weslaco businessman Ricardo "Rick" Quintanilla, second from left, walks out of the McAllen federal courthouse after being convicted on all counts in the Weslaco water plant bribery trial on Thursday. (Dina Arevalo | [email protected])

McALLEN — A federal jury has found former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar and Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla guilty on all counts in the Weslaco water plant bribery trial.

The jury began their deliberations at lunchtime Thursday and sent word to the court shortly after 4:15 p.m. to announce that they had reached a verdict.

As the families and friends of the two defendants returned to the courtroom, they could be heard murmuring hopes that the verdict’s quick return meant “good news” for the defendants.

Instead, a court staffer read off page after page of verdicts for each of the combined 70 counts against Cuellar and Quintanilla. With each page, she announced “guilty,” “guilty,” “guilty.”

The pair were jointly convicted of six counts of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, honest services wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The jury further convicted Cuellar individually of one count of federal programs bribery, 26 counts of money laundering and 26 counts of Travel Act violations for using interstate commerce in the furtherance of the conspiracy.

Likewise, the jury further convicted Quintanilla individually of one count of federal programs bribery and eight counts of money laundering.

The two defendants sat stoically beside their attorneys.

Cuellar faced forward and showed no reaction, even as two young women in the gallery began to sob quietly.

Quintanilla kept his hands tented before him, and at one point, leaned over to confer with his attorney, Jaime Peña, as the verdicts were still being announced.

Just after the verdicts were read, one young woman in the gallery could be heard whispering, “What’s going to happen to dad?”

It remains unclear which of the defendants is her father.

Speaking after the verdict Thursday afternoon, Carlos A. Garcia, the attorney representing Cuellar, spoke of the speed with which the jury returned from their deliberations.

“If they came back with a verdict that quickly, then they may have had their minds made up before we even started, or they even start deliberations,” Garcia said, calling the 70-count superseding indictment against the two defendants “an elaborate charge.”

“I’m not blaming the jury. I mean, the jury got the evidence that they got. They didn’t get to hear the evidence that I wanted to present, nor that I believe that the law provides is admissible,” Garcia further said.

Attorney Jaime Peña, who represented Quintanilla during the trial, echoed Garcia a moment later.

“I don’t speak much about the verdicts. … I second his (Garcia’s) sentiments,” Peña said.

Both attorneys said they would most likely appeal the verdict.

“Without getting into too much detail, there were other things that were brought up that the government fought to keep out and were successful. And those are points of error that will be explored as the case progresses,” Garcia said.

Garcia’s remark about the jurors possibly having made up their minds before deliberations echo sentiments he shared throughout the trial, from opening remarks last Tuesday, through his closing statements Thursday morning.

When he first addressed the jury on Oct. 11, Garcia spoke of the federal agents who investigated his client and the half dozen co-conspirators as outsiders come to the Rio Grande Valley to nab a law enforcement trophy.

During cross examination of the two FBI agents who spearheaded the yearslong investigation, both Garcia and Peña cast aspersions on their credibility — characterizing one as a novice being unwittingly led around by a more experienced law enforcement bully.

The pair had been convinced of the co-conspirators’ guilt before ever speaking to them.

As for the federal prosecutors who were working in tandem with the FBI? They, too, were corrupt.

Prosecutors ceaselessly applied pressure on targets until they relented with guilty pleas, then coached them on precisely what to say, Garcia alleged.

And when one of the defendant’s sons took the stand in his father’s defense, prosecutors shut down questioning by threatening the man with potential tax fraud claims and an admonishment from the judge.

Those allegations were themes Garcia returned to during his closing arguments.

He began by likening his relationship with prosecutors in the three years between indictment and trial to a toxic relationship with a jealous lover.

“No matter what you tell or show them, their mind is made up” about your guilt, Garcia said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr., the only one of the prosecutors at the government’s table to have been born and raised in the Valley, objected. The judge overruled him.

Garcia used John F. Cuellar, former Weslaco mayor pro tem and cousin to A.C. Cuellar, as an example of how the government “squeezed” its targets “like lemons.”

That pressure rent the nearly unbreakable bond of family between the two Cuellars.

“Blood is thicker than water. The cuffs on John Cuellar’s wrists are tighter than any hug that A.C. could have given him,” Garcia said.

Four months after the superseding indictment was unsealed in 2019, John Cuellar pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against his cousin.

And testify he did, describing how A.C. had convinced him to continue running for office lest he be an unknown nobody.

When John Cuellar lost his November 2014 re-election bid just as the public’s animus over the water plant project had reached its height, A.C. abruptly cut off the bribes and then laughed at his cousin.

Bobby Lopez recalled that bit of testimony during his own closing arguments.

“What (AC) told (John) for years was true: he’s no longer a public official. He is a nobody,” Lopez said.

“After losing that election, his cousin laughed. His cousin stopped paying him,” Lopez said some moments later.

But perhaps the most corrupt government agent of all was FBI special agent David Roncska, Garcia alleged.

He was the man whose testimony before the jury had been limited by the judge just one day before the verdict came down.

U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez had prohibited Garcia from questioning Roncska over a whispered statement he had allegedly made during the FBI’s first interview with John Cuellar at his Weslaco home.

Roncska had allegedly told special agent Jason Malkiewicz to “pound his a – – ,” in terms of dialing up the pressure during the interview.

From Garcia’s telling, Roncska was an experienced law enforcement officer who used the weight of that experience — and of his own physical presence — to intimidate targets.

Garcia noted that the jury had seen and heard Roncska as he entered the courtroom Wednesday to testify.

“I think most of us felt him, just his presence in the room,” Garcia said of the agent, who stands about 6-feet tall and strode into the courtroom with purpose.

“He’s intimidating,” Garcia said.

When it came time for Peña to give his closing remarks, he, too, spoke of the overwhelming and unfair example the government had during the trial.

He said prosecutors cherry-picked evidence — both by choosing what the jury saw, and — conveniently — what is omitted from the record.

Again, Bobby Lopez lodged an objection. Again, he was overruled.

Peña used the objection to further his point.

“How many times did you see that?” Peña asked while turning his head to nod toward where Lopez was seated.

The implication was that the government’s objections had served to omit or even suppress evidence.

At the beginning and at the end of the trial, Garcia accused federal investigators and the prosecution of pursuing this case merely to collect a trophy — one that would come at the expense of good men.

Though Lopez didn’t address that allegation specifically, he did rebut the notion that the defendants’ actions had come from an altruistic motivation to serve the community.

“Follow the money. The money talks,” Lopez said.

“The city of Weslaco made a decision based on necessity (regarding the water treatment plants). The defendants made a decision based on opportunity — drowning in bribes while the city couldn’t get water.”

The two defendants remain free on bond pending their sentencing hearing on Jan. 18, 2023.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with the full version.


TIMELINE: The long history of an alleged conspiracy