Defendant’s son testifies in Weslaco bribery trial, is admonished by judge

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 — With the government resting its prosecution shortly after lunchtime Tuesday, the defense began to mount its defense in the Weslaco water plant bribery trial by calling its first witness.

Attorney Carlos A. Garcia, who is defending former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar, got things started by calling Cuellar’s own son to the stand, Arturo Cuellar III.

However, things started going awry once Cuellar III began undergoing cross examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. — so much so that the judge was forced to intervene, putting a halt to the questioning and ordering the jury to take a brief recess.

U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez removed the jury from the courtroom so she could confer with the attorneys for both sides — and eventually, with Cuellar III, too — at the bench.

Once the jury had departed, Alvarez announced that she needed to admonish Cuellar III and briefly mentioned federal tax law before being interrupted by Garcia, who requested that the attorneys confer with her at the bench.

After some moments, Alvarez asked for Cuellar III to join the gaggle of lawyers. The group continued on for several more minutes while white noise played over the courtroom’s speakers.

Afterward, the judge recalled the jury and told them that court was recessed for the day, dismissing them until Wednesday morning.

She told Cuellar III that he was similarly dismissed as a witness until then, “with the instructions” she had given him during the bench conference.

At the time the judge had stopped his testimony, Cuellar III had been going over the arrangement his family and their company, Quality Ready Mix, had had with John F. Cuellar, the former Weslaco mayor pro tem who testified he accepted bribes from A.C. Cuellar.

A.C. Cuellar previously held a 50% ownership stake in QRM before becoming a full owner. In 2021, his son, Cuellar III took over as owner of the company.

But it was during the time that A.C. owned only half the company that prosecutors allege he paid some $405,000 in bribes to his cousin, John, in exchange for his votes on Weslaco’s water plant project.

Throughout the trial, the defense has claimed that those payments weren’t bribes, but were instead a sign of family taking care of family — of A.C. finally becoming a successful enough businessman to be able to repay his cousin, an attorney by trade, for all the free legal advice he’d given over the years.

Bobby Lopez, the prosecutor, had begun to explore that theory during his cross examination late Tuesday afternoon.

Lopez walked Cuellar III through a series of civil lawsuits J-III Concrete — owned by his father A.C. — had been involved in since the mid-1990s, when John Cuellar first became a lawyer.

Though the Cuellar family insisted that John had provided them or their companies legal services, he was not listed as an attorney of record in any of the lawsuits.

Around 2011, however, A.C. Cuellar decided it was time to finally pay his cousin, thus beginning the $10,000 per month in checks from QRM to John.

“You’re using Quality Ready Mix to pay him (John Cuellar) for that work that was allegedly done 8-10 years ago?” Lopez asked Cuellar III.

“Yes. … Everything’s not as transactional as you’re describing it,” Cuellar III replied.

Lopez then asked another question that seemed unclear, prompting the judge to step in.

“Was some of that work (by John Cuellar) for family members instead of the company?” Alvarez asked Cuellar III.

“Yes, all that’s taken into account,” Cuellar III said before again adding that John had provided legal advice to multiple members of the Cuellar family.

At that point, Alvarez ordered the jury out of the room.

The judge’s subsequent comments regarding IRS tax law — comments she didn’t finish making — seemed to imply that the witness was skating on some sort of thin ice with his remarks.


The sixth day of testimony began, however, with the government calling its 12th and final witness — FBI forensic analyst Robin Gray.

Gray testified that she had analyzed all the financial records investigators had been able to uncover during their investigation, including 137 separate accounts associated with various individuals and entities.

That included accounts associated with: Rolando Briones, Richard LeFevre, Leonel J. “Leo” Lopez Jr., John Cuellar, A.C. Cuellar and the city of Weslaco.

Of those 137 accounts, 57 were associated with A.C. Cuellar, Gray said.

Gray also developed a so-called “flow of funds chart” — a visual representation of how the money allegedly flowed in the bribery scheme.

The chart traced the money as it flowed from Weslaco, and then from person to person, between March 2008 through December 2016.

First, the money flowed to the city’s three hired firms, CDM Smith, Briones Engineering, and LeFevre Engineering.

They, in turn, paid Leonel J. Lopez Jr., the then Rio Grande City municipal judge.

Leo Lopez subsequently paid A.C. Cuellar and Rick Quintanilla, who paid John Cuellar and Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla, respectively.

Lopez received more than $4 million from CDM, Briones and LeFevre.

A.C. received nearly $1.4 million, and kept $993,000 for himself after he allegedly paid his cousin.

Quintanilla allegedly accepted more than $90,000 from Leo Lopez.

Last week, Tafolla testified he took in half of what Quintanilla received from Leo Lopez.

The money primarily flowed in one direction, Gray testified, save for two instances in which alleged bribes circulated back and forth between CDM and Briones, and between Briones and Lopez.

The only person whose bank records Gray hadn’t analyzed were those of defendant Rick Quintanilla.

Quintanilla’s records — or the lack thereof — have been a point of contention throughout the trial.

The only evidence jurors have seen of Quintanilla’s alleged involvement in the scheme are a series of more than 50 checks written to him by Lopez which were “negotiated” at Lone Star National Bank, where Lopez had an account.

Gray testified that “negotiate” means to either cash or deposit a check.

During cross examination, Quintanilla’s defense attorney, Jaime Peña, attempted to place the blame for Quintanilla’s missing bank records on the government.

The attorney walked Gray through the grand jury subpoena that had been issued to Quintanilla in 2019. Peña honed in on a semantic argument that none of the line items specifically made mention of “bank records.”

But Gray countered, saying that the word “records” was clearly defined to include bank records in an index of terms at the end of the subpoena.

It was a point that Justice Department Trial Attorney Marco Palmieri returned to on redirect.

The term “records” was defined in the subpoena as including: checks, bank statements, documentation of cash payments, wire confirmations, bank statements, other financial records, and more, Gray testified.

Further, at the time the government served Quintanilla the subpoena, he already had legal representation.


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