Trial delays continue in Weslaco hotel bribery case

Sunii Wadhwani attempts to cover his face as he walks into the federal building for his arraignment on Tuesday, Oct.15, 2019 in McAllen. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

McALLEN — After four hearings in as many months, things remain at a standstill in the federal bribery case against a McAllen hotelier and a Weslaco businessman — a case prosecutors allege is related to a larger bribery scheme involving the multimillion-dollar rehabilitation of Weslaco’s water treatment facilities and which includes allegations against at least half a dozen people.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa appeared to be running thin on patience as the delay continued during a hearing last Wednesday afternoon with the two co-defendants, Sunil Wadhwani, the owner of the Weslaco Motel 6 at the center of the case, and businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla.

The two are charged with conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud.

The delay stems from an as-yet unresolved allegation by federal prosecutors that one of Wadhwani’s defense attorneys, Michael Wynne, has a professional conflict in continuing to represent Wadhwani and should be removed from the case.

But Wadhwani has thus far remained loyal to Wynne, who once served as a federal prosecutor. The hotelier went as far as imploring Hinojosa to “give (Wynne) a chance” during a hearing in January.

The government’s motions to declare Wynne conflicted remain under seal, but Wynne’s responses to the sealed documents, as well as statements made in open court, have revealed at least some of the impetus behind the allegations.

Prosecutors believe Wynne’s former representation of a defendant in the related water plant bribery case, Daniel J. Garcia, early on in that investigation may conflict Wynne. Quintanilla is also a defendant in that case, along with former Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar.

Three other men have pleaded guilty and await sentencing for their involvement in the water plant case, including former Rio Grande City municipal judge Leonel Lopez Jr., and former Weslaco city commissioners John Cuellar and Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla. The two Cuellars are cousins.

Too, the government alleges a conflict may exist due to Wynne’s interactions with several of Wadhwani’s business associates, including Wadhwani’s executive assistant, Anil Uttamchandani. Those associates may have believed Wynne was acting in a capacity as their attorney, the government alleges.

While Wadhwani, his wife Selma, Uttamchandi, and another man, Johnny Singh, have signed documents waiving any potential conflict between themselves, their companies, and Wynne, Garcia — himself an attorney — has provided no such conflict waiver.

In court last week, Hinojosa demanded to know why that was so when he had been under the impression that such a waiver was forthcoming. Another of Wadhwani’s attorneys, David Oliveira, responded, saying alternately that he’d spoken to Garcia’s defense attorney, Gocha Allen Ramirez, who didn’t think a conflict existed, and also that Ramirez had been difficult to reach due to election campaigning.

“You don’t campaign for 24 hours a day,” Hinojosa said.

On March 3, Ramirez won the Democratic Primary in the race for the 229th District Attorney, which prosecutes cases in Starr, Jim Hogg and Duval counties.

It remained unclear if Garcia would sign a conflict waiver, however, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. said his own conversations with Ramirez had not indicated his client would produce a waiver.

Exasperated, Hinojosa turned his attention to the bevy of motions which have remained unaddressed while the attorney conflict issue drags on, including several motions by Wadhwani to dismiss the case entirely.

The unresolved motions stretch as far back as Oct. 29, 2019, when Wynne filed nearly a dozen motions on behalf of his client. Among them, he is seeking the government’s disclosure of its confidential witnesses, any agreements the government may have entered into with witnesses, and any material that would inculpate or exculpate Wadhwani.

Too, one of the October motions seeks a James hearing, wherein the court is asked to examine the admissibility of out-of-court statements made by coconspirators.

Finally, in October, Wynne filed the first of several motions to dismiss, alleging prosecutorial misconduct.

In that motion, the defense claims the government improperly used the grand jury to conduct a fact-finding mission after it had already handed down its indictment Oct. 9. “Defendant Sunil Wadhwani moves to dismiss all counts of the Indictment based on the government’s misuse of the grand jury as a post-Indictment discovery tool in an effort to improperly buttress their case,” the Oct. 29 motion reads.

“…at the prosecutors’ instigation, the grand jury continued its work, issuing subpoenas and hearing testimony of witnesses on or about October 22, 2019,” the motion further reads.

It’s unclear if the government has filed motions of its own in response to the allegation, as its filings since late November have been made under seal; however, additional motions filed by the defense have revealed that two of the government’s four sealed motions filed on Nov. 26 include the conflict allegation against Wynne, as well as a motion to declare the case complex.

Declaring the case complex would allow it to proceed free from the narrow time constraints of the Speedy Trial Act, which requires a case be tried within 70 days of an indictment becoming public.

Already, more than 70 days have lapsed since the Oct. 9 indictment — something the defense is trying to capitalize on with two additional motions to dismiss filed on Feb. 7 and Feb. 27 that allege the case is now in violation of the Speedy Trial Act.

There are exceptions to when the Speedy Trial clock can be “tolled,” however — something Hinojosa hinted at last Wednesday when he indicated he was “not convinced” of the defense’s arguments regarding the violations, adding that the majority of the delays have come from the defense itself.

He did, however, order prosecutors to file a response to the motions.

Finally, among a spate of additional motions the defense filed in early December lies one to sever the trial against Wadhwani and Quintanilla into two distinct cases.

In it, Wadhwani claims he was not an active participant in a bribery conspiracy, but was instead the victim of extortion who was threatened by Leonel Lopez. “Did Wadhwani commit some form of honest services offense, or was he extorted and shaken down by Quintanilla and his cronies?” a Dec. 2 motion reads.

Leonel Lopez is expected to be one of the government’s witnesses in the hotel case, according to statements made in court.

Ultimately, Hinojosa reset proceedings for March 24, adding that the defense should inform the court if they are able to obtain a conflict waiver from Garcia sooner than that.