Tafolla’s credibility attacked during Day 4 of Weslaco bribery trial

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])

McALLEN — For the entirety of Day 4 of the Weslaco water plant bribery trial Friday, the defense did their best to tear apart the testimony given by one of the government’s key witnesses, former District 4 Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla.

In April 2019, Tafolla pleaded guilty to one count of federal programs bribery in relation to the scheme, which involved half-a-dozen public officials.

Tafolla admitted to accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for voting in favor of certain companies tasked with the water plant rehabilitation project.

He has yet to be sentenced.

As the government began to build its case in 2018 and 2019, Tafolla became one of several officials who would go on to serve as cooperating witnesses.

John F. Cuellar, the one-time Weslaco mayor pro tem, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in honest services wire fraud. He testified on Wednesday.

As for Tafolla, he spent about nine hours on the witness stand from Thursday afternoon and all day Friday.

Federal prosecutors spent about two hours probing Tafolla over his involvement in the bribery scheme.

The former commissioner testified how he met the alleged “mastermind” of the conspiracy, former Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel J. Lopez Jr., less than a year after Tafolla was first elected to office.

Tafolla testified to how his campaign manager, Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla — who is on trial along with John Cuellar’s cousin, Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar — facilitated meetings with Lopez and A.C. Tafolla explained how those meetings served as his introduction to the bribery scheme.

And Tafolla also provided context to a series of audio and video recordings that were shown to the jury — recordings in which he, Lopez and Quintanilla can be heard worrying about the feds closing in on them.

Tafolla explained he had not been the one to make the recordings. And with Quintanilla on trial, he clearly hadn’t made them either.

That left Lopez. Lopez made the recordings after agreeing to serve as a government informant.

Like Tafolla, Lopez pleaded guilty to one count of federal programs bribery; however, he died in November 2020 before he could be sentenced.

It didn’t take long for the government to draw the story out of Tafolla, but his testimony was slow and stilted. He often took several seconds before answering a question.

His voice was low, his words sometimes mumbled. At one point, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. asked Tafolla to speak up.

Tafolla’s demeanor on the stand was a stark contrast compared to John Cuellar’s testimony against his cousin, A.C., on Wednesday. John spoke clearly and decisively even as the defense similarly tried to impeach his credibility.

Meanwhile, Tafolla had difficulty remembering precise details and had to be aided multiple times by the reports federal investigators had created from their interviews with him — transcripts and summaries called “302 reports.”

As defense attorney Jaime Peña began to cross examine Tafolla in earnest on Friday, he leaned in on that difference in demeanor.

Peña, who is representing Tafolla’s former friend, Rick Quintanilla, began by explaining the process by which a witness’ testimony and credibility can be checked.

Peña said there were “checks” for details and consistency to a witness’ story.

“Especially something like this, you really want it to be consistent because it is the truth,” Tafolla responded, emphasizing the word “because.”

The motive behind why a witness testifies can also be checked, Peña said. He called it an “influence check” over “whether or not someone has prompted or coached someone.”

Finally, a witness’ statements can be verified against tangible evidence, such as financial records or recorded conversations.

After explaining the various kinds of checks, Peña launched into a laborious and very deliberate effort at impeaching Tafolla and his testimony.

A story that had taken prosecutors just two hours to walk through on Thursday took Tafolla the entirety of Friday to retell under questioning by Peña.

And as he had with the prosecutor, Tafolla again relied heavily on documents and visual aids to support his recollection.

At one point, Peña pointedly said that Tafolla’s inability to give definite answers, or his tendency to qualify his statements by saying they must be true if the FBI’s reports contained similar assertions — was, in fact, Tafolla changing his story.

“I clarified,” Tafolla said, adding that — if his statements as reflected in the FBI’s records seemed to change or differ over time, it was because he was correcting himself just as he had done numerous times during his testimony this week.

“That was three years ago,” Tafolla said of why his recollections of the six interviews he had had with the FBI between March 2018 and throughout 2019 were not precise.

“I can’t remember all the specifics. I was real nervous. … You come here (to the federal courthouse) and you’re not at ease,” he said.

Peña also tried to imply that the only reason Tafolla was testifying is because he’s hoping his cooperation will lead prosecutors to recommend a reduced sentence.

“They (prosecutors) can make any recommendations they want. The only thing is I’m here to tell the truth and that’s it,” Tafolla said.

Finally, Peña turned to the close relationship that his client, Rick Quintanilla, previously had with Tafolla.

The two men had been friends for years. And as Tafolla first considered running for public office, Quintanilla served as his campaign manager and treasurer.

Quintanilla helped Tafolla get out the vote by engaging politiqueras to support the campaign. And in so doing, Quintanilla was also the one who handled the money that went to support those campaign workers.

Surely, then, the money that Quintanilla had given Tafolla from 2011 through 2014 — in installments of about $1,000 at a time — was just more of the same: more campaign money, Peña said.

No, Tafolla stated repeatedly. The cash was bribes.

He was resolute about that.

Bobby Lopez, the prosecutor, addressed Peña’s assertion during a brief redirect late Friday afternoon.

“What was the reason for these payments,” Bobby Lopez asked Tafolla.

“It was for the water plant,” Tafolla said.

“These bribe payments, were those campaign contributions?” Bobby Lopez further asked.

“No,” Tafolla replied.


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