BY BERENICE GARCIA | STAFF WRITER
Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel Lopez Jr. pleaded guilty last week to a bribery charge in connection with the construction of the city of Weslaco’s water plant.
Lopez pleaded guilty Friday to one count of bribery involving federal programs. He did not return a call seeking comment Monday.
Lopez is accused of bribing an unnamed Weslaco public official for contracts connected to the construction and rehabilitation of the water treatment plant from April 2008 to December 2015.
The city of Weslaco received more than $10,000 from federal programs for this project, which made it a federal offense.
The expansion and rehabilitation of the city’s water plant came with a $38 million price tag from Briones Consulting and Engineering Ltd., the engineering firm contracted to design the project, The Monitor previously reported.
A no-bid contract for the water plant was issued in 2011 to Briones when it was deemed an emergency situation because the city lacked production capacity.
Total payments made to Briones amounted to more than $8 million — about 21 percent of the $38 million in water system upgrades.
However, in 2016, the city stopped paying Briones when the company failed to provide information to justify the payments, according to a lawsuit the city filed against Briones.
In the suit, the city claimed Briones committed negligence, negligent misrepresentation, fraud and breach of fiduciary duties.
In January 2018, the city agreed to a settlement with the company in which Briones agreed to pay $1.9 million.
“I think it’s good news,” Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez said about the bribery charges Monday, adding that Weslaco residents and city commissioners “felt that the citizens were taken advantage of on that project and it’s something that they all felt, and I have felt, for several years.”
In developing the project, the city used a manager-at-risk build — a process in which a designer and engineer set a maximum price for the project and then request proposals from contractors who must not exceed that price.
That process, however, is unusual because a project is typically designed and then bids are solicited from contractors who give their estimated cost of building it.
Rio Grande City used the same manager-at-risk build just a few years prior for its own water treatment project.
Around that time, Lopez was also known to have strong ties to Weslaco politicians.
As part of his guilty plea Friday, Lopez agreed to forfeit approximately $2.5 million derived from proceeds of the Weslaco project.
Magistrate J. Scott Hacker set a $30,000.00 unsecured bond for Lopez, who posted the bond on Friday and was released later that same day.
Lopez is scheduled for sentencing by U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa on July 15.
He is currently serving a two-year term as the Rio Grande City municipal judge which expires in June 2020. His contract renewal was unanimously approved by the city commissioners in June 2018 despite a public reprimand by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for violating the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct.
The commission found that he violated a provision of the code of conduct that states “a judge or judicial candidate shall not authorize the public use of his or her name endorsing another candidate for any public office, except that either may indicate support for a political party.”
Lopez had shared a candidate’s campaign advertisement on his Facebook page in January 2016 and later was seen sitting under the campaign tent of three candidates during the May 2016 city elections.
After voting to renew Lopez’s contract, Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal noted that the incidents had occurred more than two years prior and that Lopez had done a good job running the court efficiently.
He also said Lopez had taken steps to address social media practices that had placed him under scrutiny.