McALLEN — A federal judge sided with government prosecutors last Wednesday by designating the Weslaco bribery case “complex.” As a result, federal prosecutors now have six more months to prepare for trial against the four men accused in a $4.1 million bribery scheme related to the rehabilitation of Weslaco’s water treatment facilities.
U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez handed down the decision in response to a motion by Daniel J. Garcia opposing the designation. Garcia, a criminal defense attorney from Rio Grande City, objected to the government’s request to declare the case complex and also sought to separate himself from the other three defendants.
Alvarez also denied Garcia’s motion to be tried separately.
Federal prosecutors argued that the time required to properly analyze the volume of evidence in the case would exceed that allowed by the Speedy Trial Act, which requires defendants in federal criminal cases be tried within 70 days of their indictments.
To that end, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. filed a motion May 7 seeking the court’s “complex” designation, citing “voluminous” evidence. He added in court that he expects an additional 2 terabytes of evidence.
“I don’t believe I’ve had a case that has had more evidence than this case,” he said.
Lopez requested an additional 180 days to prepare for trial, adding that defense attorneys for both John Cuellar and Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar were not opposed to designating the case complex, while defense attorneys for Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla and Garcia were.
In court Wednesday, Jaime Peña — defense attorney for Quintanilla — ultimately agreed with federal prosecutors, leaving Garcia as the lone objector to delaying trial.
Garcia’s attorney, Clay S. Conrad, argued that nothing in the case made it unusual, going as far as to accuse prosecutors of exaggerating the sophistication of the case.
“The government is manufacturing complexity,” Conrad said, after saying he had not seen “12 bankers’ boxes” of evidence Lopez had earlier referenced, and which Lopez said had been made available to the defense.
In response, the judge advised Conrad — whom Garcia retained as defense counsel after his April 18 arraignment in a 74-count superseding indictment — of his responsibility to maintain awareness of all the facts in the case.
Alvarez also asked Conrad how he could determine the relevancy of the evidence without first reviewing it.
Conrad suggested at least some of the evidence could be fast-forwarded, referring to what he called “many hours of recordings” of people driving in a car.
He further argued that allowing proceedings to languish instead served as a punitive action against his client. “In this case, we have an individual whose career is being destroyed while this case is pending,” Conrad said.
“You can’t make a living as a criminal defense lawyer while being a defendant.”
Though the judge agreed the case does not involve complex legal issues or novel questions of fact, she did find that the volume of evidence, along with the number of defendants in the case, merited additional time for review.
Alvarez sympathized with the professional hardship Conrad said the case is causing Garcia, but added that such hardships are faced by many defendants, from medical practitioners to truck drivers.
She said her decision did not serve as a waiver to Garcia’s opposition to designating the case complex, and sought input from both the defense and federal prosecutors on how long to continue the case.
Lopez reiterated his request for a 180-day continuance.
Reiterating his client’s professional worries, Conrad requested 60 days.
Carlos Garcia, defense attorney for A.C. Cuellar, said a 60-day delay would conflict with another of his cases.
Noting a similar scheduling conflict of her own, Alvarez set the continuance to 180 days.
With that, Alvarez laid out the new timeline in the case. Final pretrial motions will be made on Nov. 25, with jury selection slated for Dec. 2.
The various defense attorneys have until Sept. 20 to file any additional motions, while prosecutors have until Oct. 4 to respond to those motions. Alvarez also set a plea hearing deadline of Oct. 11.
The judge also conceded a request by the defense to make evidence more easily accessible to them.
Carlos Garcia said the defense experiences delays by having to review a substantial amount of evidence in person at federal offices and requested the ability to review such records electronically.
Prosecutors cautioned some of the evidence, such as audio cassettes, are city of Weslaco originals dating back to 2008 that would require a “second by second” investment to reproduce.
Alvarez directed prosecutors to provide the records “to the extent that this is not physically impossible.”
In a separate ruling handed down last Wednesday — prior to the hearing to declare the case complex — Alvarez denied a motion by A.C. Cuellar to recuse herself from the case.
Cuellar argued Alvarez could not remain impartial after her involvement three years ago in a civil lawsuit against Cuellar’s company, J-III Trucking, from which she received a $60,000 settlement.
Too, he argued Alvarez had recused herself in a 2016 case involving Cuellar in his official capacity as a Hidalgo County Commissioner.
Alvarez vehemently disagreed with Cuellar’s assertions in her ruling. She lambasted Cuellar in a number of criticisms, from filing his motion with the wrong case number, to omitting certain facts, to using incorrect legal verbiage in his arguments.
“The Court finds Defendant Cuellar contradicts his own assertions … and grossly mischaracterizes the facts of the prior state civil lawsuit,” Alvarez wrote in the ruling.
In regards to the 2016 case, Alvarez said she had not recused herself, but had instead transferred the case to another judge who was then hearing a related case.
Alvarez ruled Cuellar had failed to prove her inability to remain impartial, or that she harbored “any deep-seated antagonism towards him.”