FBI agent’s experience questioned on Day 5 of Weslaco bribery trial

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])

McALLEN — Day 5 of the Weslaco water plant bribery trial was entirely occupied by the testimony of FBI Special Agent Jason Malkiewicz, the man who — as a then-newly minted federal law enforcement officer — led the bulk of the investigation.

Malkiewicz came to the Rio Grande Valley as investigators at the FBI’s “resident agency” in McAllen — or local satellite office — were just beginning to look into the rumblings of a potential case in the summer of 2016.

Within weeks, however, turnover within the ranks saw Malkiewicz take over the case from his mentor, who transferred to a different field office.

Malkiewicz would go on to lead interviews with some of the alleged conspiracy’s key players — cousins John F. and Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar, then-Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel J. Lopez Jr. and others.

What had begun as an almost happenstance stumbling upon some financial irregularities would soon morph into one of the Valley’s largest public corruption scandals since former Hidalgo County Sheriff Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño and the elite Panama Unit fell from grace.

And at the center of it all was Malkiewicz, who had graduated from the FBI’s training academy in Quantico, Virginia just weeks before moving to the Valley.

Malkiewicz had no prior law enforcement experience prior to joining the FBI academy. And once he graduated and came here, the Weslaco water plant bribery scheme became his first big case — his first case as an agent, period.

Monday was also his first time testifying before a jury.


As Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. asked him questions, the FBI special agent recounted how the Weslaco bribery case got its start via an unrelated investigation.

“The FBI was investigating a different matter here in the Rio Grande Valley and through that, we obtained the bank records of Mr. Leo Lopez,” Malkiewicz testified.

Through Leo Lopez’s bank records, investigators first learned about several firms he was doing business with, including San Antonio-based Briones Engineering and Consulting, and McAllen-based LeFevre Engineering & Management.

Malkiewicz explained how those records served as the impetus for a so-called “covert” investigation into Weslaco.

From July through November 2016, Malkiewicz looked for information on public databases, in social media posts, in the local news and county court records.

Slowly, the investigation transferred to more “overt” means of sussing out information.

Agents began to physically surveil Leo Lopez, A.C. Cuellar, Rolando Briones and Richard LeFevre. At one point, the FBI deployed aerial surveillance of Leo Lopez’s Zapata County ranch.

Eventually, agents progressed to requesting records from the city of Weslaco, meeting with potential witnesses in person, and requesting the tax records of Briones, LeFevre and A.C. Cuellar.

From November 2017 through July 2018, they pursued those prongs — what Malkiewicz referred to as an “overt” investigation.

Then came the day that investigators interviewed A.C. Cuellar and his cousin, John F. Cuellar, who was then the Weslaco mayor pro tem.

Prosecutors allege that A.C. Cuellar bribed John for his votes to approve the hiring of CDM and Briones Engineering.

Fearing one would tip off the other, agents planned to interview the cousins almost simultaneously.

Malkiewicz and two others paid a visit to John Cuellar at his home, where they interviewed him for three hours. Meanwhile, other agents maintained surveillance on A.C. Cuellar.

They interviewed A.C. immediately after at his business, J-III Concrete.

Later in his testimony, Malkiewicz went over a series of emails and text messages between Leo Lopez and Richard LeFevre.

In one email, LeFevre wrote, “Hey, we need to do this. It will protect us. Call me.”

In a January 2016 text, the pair exchanged a list of questions to feed then-District 4 Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla for use during Weslaco commission meetings.

Among them was a question on why the city had stopped paying Briones.


However, when it came time for the defense to cross examine Malkiewicz, attorneys Jaime Peña and Carlos A. Garcia spent the bulk of their time assailing his competency as an investigator.

Peña walked Malkiewicz back over the list of emails the government had presented in the morning as evidence of the conspiracy.

While the records showed Leo Lopez and Richard LeFevre communicating about the Weslaco water treatment plant, under cross examination, Malkiewicz admitted that none of the emails had been sent to, received by, or carbon copied to the two defendants: A.C. Cuellar and Rick Quintanilla.

Peña — who represents Quintanilla — then went on to interrogate the FBI agent over bank records — or the lack thereof — for any member of the conspiracy other than Leo Lopez.

Malkiewicz testified that he had subpoenaed business and bank records from several people, including Quintanilla, but that, “He (Quintanilla) provided no such records.”

Peña pressed, asking if the FBI had determined how Quintanilla had used his alleged bribe payments, if agents had discovered any additional evidence regarding the money.

“As you sit here today, as the main case agent, you have no idea?” an incredulous Peña asked.

“I do not,” Malkiewicz answered.

Peña returned to the bank records repeatedly.

“You don’t know because you didn’t check,” Peña said.

“I did not identify any bank accounts with Mr. Quintanilla,” Malkiewicz responded.

Early on in his cross examination, Peña had described what he considers to be the tenets of a solid criminal investigation. He said it should be “HOT” — honest, objective and thorough.

But throughout his cross examination, Peña made clear that he thought Malkiewicz had been less than thorough.

And as the day drew to a close, it was Garcia — who is representing A.C. Cuellar — who would imply that the investigation had also lacked honesty and objectivity.

Garcia began by asking Malkiewicz about the FBI code of ethics.

“When you are a witness to something that goes beyond your code of ethics, what responsibility do you have in reporting it?” Garcia asked before the prosecution objected.

But a few moments later, it would become clear why Garcia had asked.

In the sole interview with John Cuellar that the FBI had made an audio recording of — that visit to his home — the agents could at one point be heard whispering amongst themselves.

Garcia alleges that another agent told Malkiewicz to “pound his a – -” referring to pressing John Cuellar even harder with their questions.

Later, Garcia accused Malkiewicz of having already decided John Cuellar’s guilt before ever stepping foot inside the man’s house.

“(A confession is) the primary goal… you’ve already made up your mind,” Garcia said.


>> Day One

>> Day Two

>> Day Three

>> Day Four

TIMELINE: The long history of an alleged conspiracy