Monday, October 26, 2020

Judge denies motion to recuse herself in Weslaco water treatment plant bribery case

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U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez rejected a request to recuse herself from the Weslaco water treatment plant bribery case Wednesday.

Alvarez had filed a lawsuit against J-III Trucking Co. in 2015, when a truck owned by the company totaled her car. J-III Trucking — which is owned by former Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar Jr. — settled the lawsuit and paid $60,000 to Alvarez, compensating her for injuries sustained during the crash.

Three years after the settlement, a federal grand jury indicted A.C. Cuellar on bribery and money laundering charges. Citing questions about her impartiality, the appearance of impropriety and a potential conflict of interest, A.C. Cuellar asked Alvarez to recuse herself.

Alvarez refused.

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“The prior state civil lawsuit, a civil action completely unrelated to the instant federal criminal case, has been resolved for over three years. Resolution is the opposite of conflict,” Alvarez wrote Wednesday, when she denied the request. “Considering Judge Alvarez and J-III reached a settlement, any inclination of antagonism on Judge Alvarez’s part against Defendant Cuellar is misplaced.

Certainly, a settlement does not equate to ‘personal bias.’ Even if ‘personal bias’ existed, such would not have been directed at Defendant Cuellar and any ‘stain’ of ‘personal bias’ would have ‘washed away’ by this time.”

A.C. Cuellar is accused of participating in a bribery scheme that brought together corrupt engineers and politicians. In exchange for cash, the corrupt politicians convinced the Weslaco City Commission award lucrative contracts, including work on the water treatment plant, to specific engineers.

The FBI and the Criminal Investigation division of the IRS spent years investigating the bribery scheme.
Agents collected more than 100,000 pages of documents, hundreds of audio and video recordings and 12 boxes of records, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. said Wednesday during a motion hearing.

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The evidence includes conversations recorded by at least one government informant, along with thousands of documents from City Commission meetings.

Prosecutors charged a slew of politicians, including former Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel Lopez Jr., Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia, former Weslaco City Commissioner John F. Cuellar and former Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla, with participating in the conspiracy.

According to court records, the engineers paid more than $4 million in bribes to Lopez. He passed the money to A.C. Cuellar and Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, who paid members of the City Commission.

Tafolla and Lopez pleaded guilty. Charges against the remaining defendants, who pleaded not guilty, remain pending.

About a month after his arrest, A.C. Cuellar filed a motion to recuse Alvarez.

“In this case, the Court has a conflict of interest or at a minimum the appearance of partiality,” according to the motion. “Eventually, this case will head to a Jury where a Court will be called to make rulings of law. Based on the circumstances of these facts and the law as applied to them, there is no other alternative but for this Court to recuse itself and allow for the normal course of reassignment of the cause at the bar in its entirety.”

Prosecutors disagreed, calling the lawsuit “an unremarkable situation and a routine civil settlement.”

“The defendant fails to identify any instances of animosity or bias by Judge Alvarez, and does not allege any contact between Judge Alvarez and himself, either during or after the litigation,” according to the reply filed by prosecutors. “The motion is baseless and should be denied.”

Alvarez denied the motion Wednesday, hours before a hearing on the matter.

Trial is tentatively scheduled for December.

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