BY BERENICE GARCIA | STAFF WRITER
Speculation over whether Weslaco city commissioners were involved in an alleged bribery scheme involving the city’s $38 million overhaul of its water treatment facilities appears to have been on target, at least according to an audio recording in which a federal prosecutor said two officials accepted payments in exchange for awarding contracts to three companies.
These allegations were made Friday afternoon during a re-arraignment for now-former Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel Lopez Jr., during which he pleaded guilty to one count of bribery involving federal programs.
Beginning in 2008 through about December 2016, Lopez, 52, orchestrated a scheme to bribe two Weslaco city commissioners in exchange for votes that would benefit companies dubbed A, B and C by the government, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto Lopez Jr., who recited case facts in the recording.
Company A was identified as an international engineering and construction company that performed large scale infrastructure projects for public and private clients. Company B was described as an engineering company based in San Antonio; and Company C as an engineering company based in McAllen.
In exchange, Lopez received over $4 million in bribe payments through a false consulting contract with Company B, according to the prosecutor.
With those funds, Lopez would then use various means to pay off the two Weslaco commissioners, identified by the government as Commissioners A and B.
Commissioner A is an attorney who served on the Weslaco City Commission from at least 1995 through 2014, while Commissioner B is a current commissioner who’s served since 2009.
John Cuellar, an attorney, is the only individual who is an attorney and who served on the commission from 1995 to 2014. Jerry Tafolla, an employee of Hidalgo County Precinct 1, is the only current city commissioner to have served since 2009.
Neither Cuellar nor Tafolla have responded to calls and text messages requesting comment.
To pay Commissioner A, Lopez provided checks totaling approximately $1,405,000 to a Hidalgo County resident (Individual A) who then laundered approximately $405,000 in check payments to Commissioner A through a concrete company based in Corpus Christi (Company D).
Individual A, the Hidalgo County resident, is part owner of that concrete company.
The alleged bribes to Commissioner A from Individual A were disguised as payments for legitimate business that Commissioner A never performed.
Another method that Lopez used to pay off that commissioner was through a Rio Grande City-based attorney, identified as Individual C.
Lopez gave the funds to the Rio Grande City attorney who used an IOLTA bank account — referred to as an Interest on Lawyer Trust account — for his law practice to launder approximately $90,000 in bribe payments and provide them to Commissioner A, according to the prosecutor.
They allegedly attempted to conceal the payments by establishing a false attorney-client relationship between the attorney, Lopez and Commissioner A.
Lopez and Individual A, the Hidalgo County resident, agreed to compensate the Rio Grande City attorney (Individual C), by helping a friend of the attorney obtain a job.
As for the second Weslaco city commissioner, the government believes Lopez enlisted a Weslaco businessman, dubbed Individual B, to help him secure the commissioners’ participation in the scheme.
Lopez paid the Weslaco businessman approximately $92,950 in checks, which the businessman would cash and then split the funds with Commissioner B, the government has alleged.
While the scheme was being executed, Lopez is said to have met with three people, identified as Person A, Person B and Person C.
They were an employee of Company A, the owner of Company B, and the owner of Company C, respectively.
Their meetings were to discuss the execution of the scheme including what votes Commissioners A and B needed to take that would benefit Companies A, B and C.
The two commissioners voted in favor of infrastructure projects related to Weslaco’s water processing facilities, directing what the prosecutor stated was more than $50 million in contracts to these three companies.
Companies A and B were contracted for the rehabilitation and expansion of the water treatment facilities and the two, in turn, granted subcontracts to Company C.
For the expansion of its water treatment plant, the city hired CDM Smith, a Massachusetts-based engineering and construction firm, and Briones Consulting & Engineering Ltd, a San Antonio-based company with close ties to CDM. J-III Concrete, which is co-owned by former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner A.C. Cuellar, was also among the plant’s sub-contractors.
A.C. Cuellar, who is cousins with John Cuellar and Tafolla’s former employer at Precinct 1, has partnered with business associates to create Quality Ready Mix out of Corpus Christi, according to his Facebook page. Asked about the investigation and whether he’d comment about speculation that he’d turn himself in to federal authorities, A.C. Cuellar said, “I don’t know anything yet, so I don’t want to comment right now. If I do, I’ll let you know.”
From the scheme, Lopez retained at least $2,514,414 for himself, which the former judge will forfeit in property as part of his plea agreement.
When Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa asked Lopez if everything the prosecutor stated was correct, Lopez said it was.
Lopez was serving a two-year term as the Rio Grande City municipal judge; however, his contract stipulates that a conviction of a misdemeanor or felony crime is considered an automatic resignation.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct on Wednesday suspended Lopez without pay effective immediately.
During Friday’s hearing, Lopez told Judge Hinojosa that he was recently hired by the county as he was going to resign from the municipal court.
Ruben Saenz, the Starr County commissioner for Precinct 4, confirmed Lopez was hired as the programs department manager for the office a few weeks ago.
Lopez said he had also worked with the office of state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, until about March 15.
Scheduled to be sentenced on July 15, Lopez faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Monitor staff writer Naxiely Lopez-Puente contributed to this report.