Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Hotel owner pleads guilty to wire fraud in Weslaco hotel bribery case

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A prominent Rio Grande Valley businessman pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Sunil B. Wadhwani, 57, of McAllen — who owned hotels in Hidalgo County and served on the Lone Star National Bank advisory board — pleaded guilty Friday afternoon during a hearing at the federal courthouse in McAllen.

Wadhwani paid at least $4,000 in bribes. In exchange, he received $300,000 from the Weslaco Economic Development Corp.

“Bad mistake on my part, your honor,” Wadhwani said, apologizing for participating in the bribery scheme.

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While emphasizing that he wasn’t trying to make excuses for his behavior, Wadhwani said he was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I think my client is a good person, but you put him into the mix and they’ll make a good guy do bad things,” said attorney Rick Salinas of Mission, who represented Wadhwani on Friday.

Wadhwani owned hotels in Mission, Pharr and Mercedes. In 2013, he decided to build a Motel 6 in Weslaco.

“He stepped into a hornet’s nest,” Salinas said.

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Before he approached the city, Wadhwani met with Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, a Weslaco businessman with political connections.

Wadhwani paid at least $4,000 to Quintanilla, who funneled the money to City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla, according to the indictment and information presented during the hearing Friday. Leonel J. Lopez Jr., a well-connected politician from Starr County, also received part of the money.

To make the money look legitimate, they “drafted a fictitious consulting services agreement” between Wadhwani and a company Lopez controlled, according to the indictment.

The scheme apparently succeeded.

Wadhwani contacted the Weslaco EDC in April 2013. He proposed a “Phoenix Prototype” Motel 6 near the intersection of Border Avenue and Interstate 2. The 65-bed motel would cost $3 million.

After reviewing the proposal, the Weslaco EDC board approved a $300,000 economic development agreement.

“Mr. Tafolla made a motion that the Board of Directors of The Economic Development Corporation of Weslaco (EDC) provide an incentive of up to Three Hundred Thousand Dollars ($300,000.00) to Sarina Group, Ltd., for the Motel 6 project,” according to the meeting minutes, which the Weslaco EDC released under the Texas Public Information Act. “Mr. Rivera seconded the motion. Motion carried unanimously.”

Similar allegations surfaced during the Weslaco water treatment plant bribery scandal.

In that case, Quintanilla and Lopez funneled money from engineers to Tafolla. In exchange, Tafolla voted to approve contracts worth millions.

Tafolla and Lopez pleaded guilty to bribery in the water treatment plant case.

A grand jury also indicted Quintanilla on bribery and money laundering charges. He pleaded not guilty.

Wadhwani is scheduled for sentencing on July 30. He faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.

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