Judge, attorney have terse exchange over witness in 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 — Just before lunch on Wednesday, the defense rested its case in the trial against two men accused of participating in a multimillion-dollar public corruption scheme related to the rehabilitation of Weslaco’s water treatment plants.

Former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar and Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla stand accused of accepting bribes from the contractors tasked with the water plant project, and in turn, paying out bribes to numerous public officials in exchange for their favorable votes.

The trial has proceeded in McAllen federal court for more than a week; however, Wednesday’s proceedings didn’t begin with the continuation of the defense’s first witness. Instead, it began with a battle over their second, who had yet to take the stand.


Things began with Carlos A. Garcia, the attorney representing Cuellar, taking issue with a motion that prosecutors filed shortly before the judge took the bench.

The government’s motion sought to prevent Garcia from calling FBI special agent David L. Roncska as a witness.

Roncska had been one of a small group of agents who worked on the Weslaco bribery investigation from its inception in 2016 and onward.

His relevance as a defense witness came after Garcia alleged that Roncska may have been prejudicial during the investigation — contrary to the FBI’s own ethical codes for agents to act dispassionately and without preconceptions.

While questioning another FBI agent earlier this week — special agent Jason Malkiewicz, who led the case — Garcia explored the possibility of Roncska’s potential bias.

Garcia claimed that Roncska’s impropriety was illustrated in an audio recording the two FBI agents — along with an IRS criminal investigator — made during their first interview with John F. Cuellar at his Weslaco home in 2018.

During a moment when John Cuellar had stepped away, the three federal agents could be heard on the recording whispering amongst themselves, Garcia said.

By that time, the interview had already stretched on for an hour or longer and Malkiewicz could be heard asking what to do next.

Garcia alleges that Roncska replied “pound him in the a—,” referring to taking a harder stance against John Cuellar during the interview.

Garcia played the recording for Malkiewicz on the stand, but the agent said that that portion of the audio was unintelligible.

The audio was not played for the jury.

At the time of the interview, John Cuellar — who is cousin to A.C. Cuellar — served as the Weslaco mayor pro tem. John has since pleaded guilty — and testified to — accepting bribes from A.C. in order to affect his votes on the water plant project.

However, the defense has heavily implied that the government coerced its cooperating witnesses to plead guilty.

Garcia points to that first interview at John Cuellar’s home — which went on for three hours before John invoked his right to an attorney — as an example of that government arm-bending.

Garcia hoped to be able to question Roncska about his alleged inflammatory statement. The government, for its part, wanted to keep Roncska off the stand entirely.


And so, before the jury took their seats Wednesday morning, U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez took up the issue.

Alvarez sided with the government that allowing Garcia to question Roncska over the whispered dialogue would amount to hearsay, which is only admissible under narrow exceptions.

Garcia rebutted that the judge had previously allowed Malkiewicz to testify about the contents of the recording, and that her decision Wednesday was her “going back on” what she had previously ruled.

The attorney further stated that denying him the opportunity to question Roncska about the recording violated his client’s Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser with regard to Roncska’s potential state of mind, motive or bias while questioning John Cuellar.

The judge disagreed.

“I make the determination about what evidence comes into the trial,” Alvarez said.

Next, Garcia requested a continuance — a short delay to the proceedings — so that he could more thoroughly address the legal arguments for admitting the line of questioning.

“I believe that the court’s ruling is incorrect,” Garcia said.

Alvarez denied the request.

Garcia then called for a mistrial, again citing his client’s 6th Amendment rights.

Jaime Peña, the attorney representing Rick Quintanilla, joined Garcia’s motion for a mistrial on similar grounds.

Alvarez denied them both.

By that point, the atmosphere in the courtroom had grown noticeably strained. Both the judge and Garcia had raised their voices numerous times.

Before the discussion ended, though, Garcia asked to be allowed to “perfect” his objection in order to preserve the complaint should the case need to be appealed in the future — what’s called an “offer of proof.”

The judge granted that request, which led to a quieter bit of testimony between Garcia and Roncska Wednesday afternoon — after the jury had been dismissed for the day.


Roncska was called back into the nearly empty courtroom at about 3 p.m. and placed back under oath without the jury present.

Garcia began the exchange by explaining that the questions he was about to ask the agent were, “questions I would have asked had I been given the opportunity” to do so before the jury.

He asked if Roncska remembered the whispered conversation between himself, Malkiewicz and IRS Agent Sonia Hurtado during that February 2018 interview at John Cuellar’s home.

“I don’t know who whispered and what was said,” Roncska said.

“I could not comprehend what the whispers were,” he added later.

Roncska said he couldn’t make out what was being said in the portion of the audio Garcia claimed the agent had whispered, “Pound his a—.”

When Garcia pressed, Roncska balked.

“Sir, I don’t recall saying that,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Roncska had been allowed to be questioned in a limited fashion in front of the jury.

During that portion of his testimony, Garcia asked him about the FBI’s official policies in terms of ethics. Garcia asked if agents should allow themselves to develop preconceptions of guilt during investigations.

“We look at the facts. Our job is as much to disprove the allegations as it is to prove them,” Roncska replied.

Garcia asked if Roncska and the other agents had gone to John Cuellar’s home in 2018 with the goal of eliciting a confession.

“No, sir. We were trying to get to the truth,” the agent replied.

Garcia closed his case with the public testimony of agent Roncska.

Peña chose to not call any witnesses to the stand in defense of Rick Quintanilla.

And neither defendant took the stand in their own defense, as is their right.

The jury will return at 9 a.m. Thursday to hear approximately two hours of closing arguments before being given a lengthy set of jury instructions. Their deliberation will follow.


TIMELINE: The long history of an alleged conspiracy