The sentencing of Leonel Lopez Jr., the former Rio Grande City municipal judge who last spring pleaded guilty to bribery charges, has been delayed interminably, according to federal court records.
Handed down Sept. 24 by U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa, the order canceling Lopez’s sentencing “until further notice” represents the fifth such delay of the former public official, who pleaded guilty to federal programs bribery on March 22, 2019.
With his guilty plea, Lopez became the first of a number of men to be publicly implicated in a bribery scheme involving the $38.5 million rehabilitation of the city of Weslaco’s water treatment facilities.
Lopez admitted to accepting millions of dollars in bribes, then funneling part of that money, in turn, to Weslaco public officials in order to secure contracts for the firms that were ultimately awarded the construction project.
In early April 2019, just two weeks after Lopez’s guilty plea, Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla — then a sitting Weslaco city commissioner — also pleaded guilty to federal programs bribery.
Also implicated in the scheme were former city commissioner John Cuellar, former Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C” Cuellar, Weslaco businessman Ricardo Quintanilla, and an attorney from Rio Grande City, Daniel J. Garcia.
The four men were charged with a litany of crimes spelled out in a 34-page superseding indictment ranging from wire fraud and bribery, to money laundering. All four initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, though John Cuellar later changed his plea to guilty after reaching a deal with federal prosecutors.
The remaining three defendants were slated to head to trial in July, but proceedings were pushed back to November due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the Rio Grande Valley still a virus hotspot, that date is likely to be delayed again.
Prosecutors allege all six men engaged in paying and accepting bribes via shell companies disguised as consulting firms in order to secure the commission votes needed to award the construction contracts to at least three different companies listed in the indictment as Company A, Company B and Company C.
In October 2018, the city of Weslaco sued several firms involved in the water plant rehabilitation, including Massachusetts-based CDM Constructors, San Antonio-based Briones Consulting and Engineering, and McAllen-based Lefevre Engineering.
In January 2018, the city reached a $1.9 million settlement against Briones Consulting and Engineering in a separate lawsuit it filed in March 2016.
Nearly two years later, the later lawsuit — which names Lopez, Quintanilla and the two Cuellars as defendants in addition to the construction firms — has stalled in the 13th Court of Appeals, where CDM has challenged a lower court’s decision to deny its motion to dismiss the suit.
Meanwhile, in the pending criminal cases, John Cuellar and Tafolla also await sentencing dates.
A March 26 sentencing date for Tafolla was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and has yet to be rescheduled, while John Cuellar’s sentencing has been reset three times since January.
No new sentencing date has been scheduled for Cuellar, according to court records.
Two other men have also been tied to the bribery scheme.
Former Weslaco City Commissioner David Fox, who concurrently served as a board member for the Economic Development Corporation of Weslaco, pleaded guilty to perjury last October.
Fox admitted to lying during his grand jury testimony when asked by prosecutors if he had accepted money in exchange for his favorable votes on the commission and EDC board. He later admitted to accepting about $2,000.
And this spring, McAllen hotelier Sunil Wadhwani pleaded guilty to bribery for his role in paying bribes to Weslaco officials in exchange for receiving a $300,000 economic incentive agreement to build a Motel 6.
During a May 22 re-arraignment hearing, Wadhwani admitted to paying $4,000 in bribes to Tafolla.
Originally slated to be sentenced on July 30, Wadhwani’s sentencing has also been postponed until further notice, court records show.
Quintanilla is named as a defendant in that case, as well.
In both the water plant and hotel bribery cases, federal prosecutors allege Quintanilla served as a middleman who facilitated the bribes between the private firms and public officials.
He has pleaded not guilty.
According to statements made in open court, Lopez is expected to be a key witness in the hotel case. A trial date has yet to be set.