Cuellar seeks judge’s recusal in Weslaco bribery case

Government prosecutors are challenging a motion to have a federal judge recused from the Weslaco bribery case in which former and current local officials were named as defendants.

Carlos A. Garcia, the attorney representing former Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr., filed a motion seeking the recusal of U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez, arguing her impartiality was in question for suing one of Cuellar’s companies in 2015.

Last Wednesday, attorneys for the government filed a motion opposing the recusal, calling Alvarez’s lawsuit “routine and unremarkable.”

The lawsuit stemmed from a car accident on Jan. 29, 2015, involving Alvarez and J-III Trucking Company.

A few months later, in April 2015, Alvarez filed a civil suit against the company seeking damages.

Nearly a year later, in March 2016, J-III settled with Alvarez for $60,000.

The case was settled out of court without incident.

“The defendant fails to identify any instances of animosity or bias by Judge Alvarez, and does not allege any contact between Judge Alvarez and himself, either during or after the litigation,” the government stated in their opposing motion. “The motion is baseless and should be denied.”

In arguing for Alvarez’s recusal, Cuellar, through his attorney, noted in the motion that Alvarez had previously transferred a case from her court that involved Cuellar.

That case, Gregorio Treviño Jr. vs. Hidalgo County, listed Cuellar as a defendant in his official capacity as he was still a county commissioner at the time.

It’s unclear why Alvarez transferred that case out of her court, though, at that time — on March 1, 2016 — her lawsuit against J-III had not yet been settled. The motion to recuse argues that the stain of partiality wasn’t washed away just because the J-III suit is now settled, the motion read.

The motion for recusal also states that the Code of Conduct for United States Judges states that a judge should avoid impropriety or the appearance of such and that a judge should be disqualified in situations where his or her impartiality might reasonably be questioned.

“In this case, the Court has a conflict of interest or at a minimum the appearance of partiality,” the motion stated.

However, the government response states that “the mere fact that the judge and a party were previously litigants does not alone create an appearance of impropriety mandating recusal.”

Cuellar is one of six defendants accused of taking part in a scheme to funnel approximately $4 million in bribes from engineering companies to two Weslaco city commissioners. The city commissioners are accused of voting to award contracts for the overhaul of the city’s water treatment facilities to those companies in exchange for the money.

It is unclear when Alvarez is likely to rule on the motions and the case itself will likely take its time in moving forward as the government also filed a motion to declare the case complex.

Designating a case as complex would exempt it from rules set by the Speedy Trial Act. A case is allowed those exceptions where a case “is so unusual or complex” because of the number of defendants, the nature of the prosecution, the existence of novel questions of fact or law, or because it would be unreasonable to expect adequate preparation within the time limits set within federal law, according to Title 18 of the U.S. Code.

In the motion, they state that the attorneys for A.C. Cuellar and John F. Cuellar — a former Weslaco city commissioner — indicated they were in favor of designating the case complex.

However, attorneys for Daniel J. Garcia — an attorney and Rio Grande City school board trustee — and Ricardo Quintanilla — a Weslaco businessman — indicated they were opposed to it, according to the government’s motion.

The government argues that the evidence is “voluminous,” consisting of over 125,000 pages, more than 100 law enforcement recordings, about a dozen boxes of hard copy records, hundreds of tape recordings of the Weslaco City Commission, and several repositories of electronic information that consists of cell phones, hard drives and online accounts.

Garcia, through his attorney, argued in his response that the evidence was straightforward and easily understood.

However, if the case is designated complex, he requests to be tried separately from the other defendants, arguing that his alleged involvement was small.

“His alleged involvement is tangential at best,” Garcia’s attorney, Clay S. Conrad, stated.

Last Thursday, the government filed another motion doubling down on their argument that the case should be designated complex.

“By the defendants’ design, the financial evidence is complex,” the government argued. “Defendant Garcia and his confederates purposefully made it so, crafting elaborate shell games in an attempt to obfuscate their scheme. This evidence is both complex and essential, and ample time is required to prepare its presentation.”

A hearing has yet to be scheduled to consider the motion to have the judge recused or the motion to designate the case complex.