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2 Texas Lawyers Arrested in Public Corruption Sting

Credit: Billion Photos/Shutterstock.com

Credit: Billion Photos/Shutterstock.com

A public corruption sting involving bribes for votes to award multimillion-dollar engineering and construction contracts has netted a Weslaco attorney and a Rio Grande City lawyer, who federal agents arrested Friday.

The defendants in the case are John F. Cuellar, a Weslaco lawyer who formerly served as a Weslaco city commissioner, Rio Grande City attorney Daniel Garcia and a nonlawyer, Arturo C. Cuellar Jr., who was a Hidalgo County commissioner. The Cuellars, who are cousins, each face charges of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, while Garcia faces the money laundering charge.

No one answered the phone at the law offices for John Cuellar and Daniel Garcia Friday afternoon, and Arturo Cuellar didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

The criminal complaint in United States v. Cuellar, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, alleges that the men committed the crimes from 2008 to 2016 along with someone the complaint calls “Commissioner A,” and two other men, Starr County resident Leonel Lopez Jr.—he’s pleaded guilty on a federal bribery charge, according to The Monitor—and Weslaco businessman Ricardo Quintanilla, who faces charges separately.

Edinburg solo Fabian Guerrero, who represents Lopez, declined to comment. Quintanilla’s attorney, Jaime Pena of Pena Garza in McAllen, didn’t immediately respond to a call or email seeking comment.

The story started in 2004 when a state agency told the city of Weslaco that several of its water treatment facilities violated environmental regulations. The Weslaco City Commission voted in 2007 to issue $28 million in bonds to finance several infrastructure projects, including costly rebuilding and repairs on two water plants. In 2008, the commission hired “Company A,” a large-infrastructure engineering and construction company, to be the construction manager for the bond-funded projects, which gave responsibility for selecting the companies that would perform the actual work. Company A granted to itself contracts for the costly water plant projects.

The complaint alleged that Lopez, the one who’s pleaded guilty, said that for payment, he’d ensure that contracts were awarded to that construction management company, and another San Antonio engineering company. Next, Lopez got agreements from Arturo Cuellar and John Cuellar, who said they’d take their official action of voting to approve of the contracts for the two companies. The Cuellars got bribe payments in return, alleged the complaint.

Next, prosecutors alleged the Cuellars knew that Lopez in 2011 worked with Ricardo Quintanilla, a Weslaco businessman, who had convinced “Commissioner A” to take bribes for votes that enriched the two companies by granting them city contracts. Lopez was paying the money and Quintanilla was delivering it to Commissioner A, according to the complaint.

In 2012, a McAlllen engineering company also got in on the action, funneling bribes through Lopez to get the commissioners’ votes so the company would receive subcontracts on the water plant work and other city contracts, alleged the complaint.

The complaint lists many official actions that John Cuellar took over the years to advance the scheme, granting contracts to the companies that paid the bribes.

Once, in 2011, John Cuellar and "Commissioner A" even voted that one water plant was an imminent public health and safety threat, a declaration allowing the commission to grant no-bid contracts, according to the court filing. They picked two of the bribe-paying companies afterward, without need for a competitive bidding or qualification process.

There are allegations in the complaint that one of the companies wanted additional funds for its city contract, so it would have extra money to pay the bribes. John Cuellar and "Commissioner A" voted to increase its contract by $2.98 million.

Over the years, the payments added up. The San Antonio engineering company paid out $2.5 million to Lopez, and the McAllen engineering company paid him $1.6 million, prosecutors alleged.

Arturo Cuellar took $1.4 million over the years, and John Cuellar received $405,000, alleged the complaint.

Garcia, the Rio Grande City attorney who also faces charges, came into the scheme in 2012, according to court filings. The complaint alleged he helped Lopez and Arturo Cuellar funnel $90,000 through his Interest on Lawyers Trust Account to send bribe payments to John Cuellar. Garcia helped this way because he wanted Lopez and Arturo Cuellar to help his friend, who is a Houston attorney, find employment. The Houston lawyer in 2014 got a job in the city of Weslaco.

Read the criminal complaint in United States v. Cuellar.