Recordings: Weslaco bribery conspirators worried as feds closed in

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

McALLEN — During Day 3 of testimony in the Weslaco water plant bribery trial, a former public official detailed how members of the alleged conspiracy began to cast their suspicions as federal agents began to close in on them.

Jurors heard from former Weslaco District 4 Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla on Thursday as federal prosecutors walked him through a series of recordings that had been surreptitiously made during conversations he had had with Leonel J. Lopez Jr. and Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla.

The recordings — a mix of audio and shaky video clips — illustrated how the trio wondered aloud how the information about the bribery scheme was becoming public.

The recordings also illustrated how the men worked together to fabricate cover stories to obscure the scheme.

In them, Leo Lopez, who was then the Rio Grande City municipal judge, can be heard asking Tafolla and his campaign manager, Quintanilla, how information was getting out.

“We know it’s Alvaro, and we know Alvaro is close to who? Mickey Mouse,” Lopez can be heard saying in one video clip amid a cacophony of restaurant noise and occasional inquiries from the waitress.

“Mickey Mouse” was the nickname the trio used to refer to Weslaco Mayor David Suarez. Alvaro, meanwhile, was Alvaro Peña, the mayor’s business partner.

Lopez speculated heavily that Suarez — a man who filled him with “coraje,” or anger — was the one who was stirring up trouble for the bribery schemers.

Weslaco citizens had grown fed up with how much time and money the city was taking to repair its water and wastewater plants. And as concerns of public corruption had begun to swell, Suarez was among a new faction of elected officials who had run for office pledging to root that corruption out.

The mayor had begun to ask questions about who the project’s engineering and construction firms had hired as subcontractors, or “subs.”

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In fact, it was Lopez, the former municipal judge, who had been hired as a “sub” for Briones Engineering and CDM Smith — as a consultant.

But Suarez wasn’t the only person Lopez had cast aspersions on in the recorded conversations. At one point, he also speculated that it could have been coconspirator Briones Engineering that was responsible for the information leaks.

“The only way they could have known is if Briones had opened up,” Jerry Tafolla testified, summarizing what Lopez had said during a muddied clip.

In the next clip, Lopez can be heard saying that he was worried about being questioned by federal investigators because they rarely asked a question without already knowing what they’re talking about.

“You know how the feds are… what am I gonna tell them?” Lopez asked in the recording.

But, at the time, Lopez had less cause for concern than the two men he was dining with that night — unbeknownst to both of them.

Near the end of Tafolla’s testimony, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. asked him if he had been the one to make the recordings.

Tafolla answered no.

There had been only three men there that night: Tafolla, Lopez and Quintanilla.

And only one of those three men is currently on trial — Quintanilla.

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Lopez made the recordings after he had agreed to become a cooperating witness for the government.

Lopez had asked probing questions full of suspicion not because he was worried about being caught — he had already been caught — but because he was trying to get his co-conspirators to admit their own guilt.

In the audio and video, Quintanilla can be heard taking the bait.

“We need to get our stories straight. What are we gonna say?” Lopez asked.

“I do stuff in Mexico. Yeah, I do a lot of work,” Quintanilla responded.

On the witness stand, Tafolla explained what Quintanilla had meant by that comment.

“We both (did) work for maquilas,” Tafolla said, meaning that he and Quintanilla could use such work to explain how the two men made their incomes.

“Was that really what was happening?” Bobby Lopez, the prosecutor, asked.

“No,” Tafolla responded.

Earlier in his testimony, Tafolla said he had, at one point, worked as a salesman for a maquila company, but his performance had been so poor that he had been fired.

Leo Lopez, who was expected to be the government’s chief witness in the trial, died of cancer in November 2020.

On Thursday, Tafolla also testified how he met the second defendant in the trial — Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar — who at the time served as the Precinct 1 Hidalgo County commissioner.

The two became acquainted when Tafolla first decided to run for a seat on the Weslaco City Commission. At the time, Cuellar had supported Tafolla’s opponent, Adrian Gonzalez.

Tafolla lost that election, but ran again in 2009. That time, he won.

Some months later, Quintanilla invited him to an introduction with Leo Lopez. During the meeting, Lopez said Tafolla and Cuellar should “mend fences.”

They would go on to do just that during a dinner at the Cimarron Country Club in Mission that was also attended by Leo Lopez and Quintanilla. There, the four men began their first discussions about accepting bribes from Briones and CDM, Tafolla testified.

“You were willing to take bribes from Quintanilla,” Bobby Lopez asked Tafolla Thursday.

“Yes,” he replied from the witness stand.

“You violated your oath?” the prosecutor asked.

“Yes,” Tafolla said.