Former Weslaco commissioner testifies against cousin during second day of bribery trial

Former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Arturo “A.C” Cuellar, center, stands outside the McAllen federal courthouse on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Cuellar and Weslaco businessman Ricardo Quintanilla are on trial for bribery. (Dina Arévalo | [email protected])

McALLEN — “The day you leave that office, you’re gonna be a nobody.”

Former District 1 Weslaco City Commissioner John F. Cuellar said that’s what his cousin, Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr. told him when he expressed reservations about continuing to serve on the Weslaco City Commission.

John Cuellar, a lawyer by trade who had already served on the commission for a number of years, wanted to spread his wings professionally — to explore establishing law offices outside the Rio Grande Valley, or to perhaps be retained as counsel for firms that did business with the city without risking a conflict of interest.

But his cousin A.C. strove hard to convince John to stay in office, where he served not only as a commissioner, but under the ceremonial position of “mayor pro tem,” which John testified was like being the “vice mayor” of the city.

A.C. told his cousin that John would fade into obscurity without the notoriety of his public office.

As prosecutors questioned John during the second day of the Weslaco water plant bribery trial in McAllen federal court on Wednesday, they would draw out a story of a man who thought his cousin’s love came from a place of support for family, but would later be revealed as a matter of convenience — a means to a profitable end.


Not long after John Cuellar was convinced to remain in office, he became part of a scheme to defraud the very city and citizens he served — one concocted by A.C. and Leonel J. “Leo” Lopez Jr., who graduated from Weslaco High School before setting down roots in Rio Grande City.

The trio would meet at A.C. Cuellar’s house, or at a restaurant called Kato Sushi.

In the spring of 2011, they hatched the scheme to accept bribes from two construction and engineering firms — CDM Smith, and Briones Engineering — in exchange for steering the Weslaco City Commission into hiring the firms on the $38.5 million water plant projects.

The bribes would be disguised as payments for legitimate services, John Cuellar testified.

In his case, he would receive $10,000 a month — divided into two $5,000 checks — from one of A.C. Cuellar’s companies, Quality Ready Mix.

Former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Arturo “A.C” Cuellar, center, stands outside the McAllen federal courthouse with his defense attorney, Carlos A. Garcia, left, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Cuellar and Weslaco businessman Ricardo Quintanilla are on trial for bribery. (Dina Arévalo | [email protected])

In total, John testified that A.C. paid him $405,000 in bribes between 2011 and 2014.

The prosecutor asked if John knew the payments were bribes from A.C. Cuellar.

“Yes,” John Cuellar said simply, but added that the word “bribe” was never expressly used.

He, A.C. and Leo Lopez had agreed that if anybody asked about the payments, John would say they were for his providing legal services to QRM, which was referred to in the superseding indictment as “Company D.”

And John stuck to that script when the FBI first came knocking at his door in 2018.


But before there was an FBI investigation, there was a Weslaco election.

In November 2014, John Cuellar was again bidding to keep his seat on the commission. But, amidst growing rumors of public corruption, he lost.

A couple of weeks after the election loss, John noticed that people weren’t answering his calls like they used to. Nor had he received that month’s second check from QRM. So, he paid a visit to his cousin A.C.

“I went to his office and asked if he had my second check. (A.C.) started to laugh,” John Cuellar testified.

“I was hurt. I was upset,” he said.

John and A.C. haven’t spoken to each other in the three years since they were both indicted over the scheme.

That’s due largely to a court-ordered prohibition against communicating with each other, but John’s testimony Wednesday implied it was also due to the fracture in their relationship.

In 2019, four months after the indictment against them was unsealed, John Cuellar changed his plea to guilty. In exchange, he agreed to become a cooperating witness for the government.

Leo Lopez, the man prosecutors call the mastermind of it all, pleaded guilty, as well. He died of cancer in November 2020.


Meanwhile, it wasn’t just the two Cuellar cousins who had a falling out over the course of the criminal investigation.

Juan E. Gonzalez — who currently serves as the Weslaco city attorney — said that he, too, had a dispute with a close associate in relation to the bribery scheme.

Gonzalez testified that he had become friends with the second defendant in the trial, Rick Quintanilla, after getting to know him via his daughter.

Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, right, walks out of the McAllen federal courthouse at the end of day 2 in the trial against him Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Quintanilla and Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar are on trial for bribery. (Dina Arévalo | [email protected])

Quintanilla, it turns out, is the uncle of Gonzalez’s son-in-law.

Eventually, the pair’s friendship grew into convivial visits at Gonzalez’s law office, where Quintanilla would pick Gonzalez’s brain about municipal law matters.

Quintanilla would also occasionally ask for donations to help care for politiqueras.

Gonzalez wrote Quintanilla checks for “food and drink” for the poll workers, he testified.

But in August 2019 — after the criminal indictment had come down — Quintanilla paid Gonzalez an unexpected visit at his law office one day at 6:15 a.m.

“He said, ‘I want you to testify that you hired me as a consultant,’” Gonzalez testified Quintanilla had said.

“And I said, ‘Rick, I can’t do that. That’s not the way it was,’” Gonzalez said.

Quintanilla wanted Gonzalez to say that all those checks he’d written to buy poll worker supplies had, in fact, been consulting payments instead.

“I felt like he was asking me to perjure myself,” Gonzalez said, adding that he forcefully asked Quintanilla to leave.

Quintanilla left the office, but returned a moment later with one last epithet.

“You better not f – – – this up for me!” Gonzalez said Quintanilla told him.

Half an hour after the exchange, Gonzalez reported the conversation to prosecutors.


Jury selected; first witness called in Weslaco bribery trial