Facebook comments about county commissioner spawn lawsuit

EDINBURG — Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar Jr. is taking what’s said about him on social media to court after filing a lawsuit against a longtime Mid-Valley resident known for being critical of the elected official.

Cuellar filed the suit against Laguna Vista resident Mike Jones in Hidalgo County District Court on Friday, Jan. 22, alleging that Facebook comments made by the Donna native and longtime resident of Weslaco hurt the commissioner’s business and reputation.

In the petition, Cuellar claims that Jones, on Nov. 1, 2014, made “allegations of fact” that the commissioner was engaged in fraud, accepting millions in bribes, under FBI investigation and “diverting money to pay for campaign contributions.”

The other Facebook comments called into question, which span from Sept. 15 to Oct. 25, include allegations that Cuellar is a criminal, “constantly fighting to stay out of jail,” “manipulating the system to benefit him self (sic),” “intentionally diverted 4,5 (sic) million dollars to Pharr to repay campaign contributions,” “taking bribes, paying bribes” and “cocaine for votes in Donna.”

The commissioner not only denied these claims in the suit but argues that Jones’ statements hurt Cuellar’s business as an owner of J-III Concrete. What’s more, Cuellar referred to the social media remarks as libelous and damaging to his reputation, allegedly exposing him to “public hatred, contempt, ridicule, or financial injury.”

Damages of anywhere from $200,000 to $1 million are sought as well as a temporary restraining order, and eventually a permanent injunction that would prevent Jones from making any defamatory remarks about Cuellar on social media.

Jones, however, said he has different plans.

“I believe it was a shot across the bow, because I’ve been at this guy since 2013 and never once received a phone call or any kind of communication asking, ‘What are you doing, what’s going on with this whole thing, maybe this is all a misunderstanding,’” Jones said Thursday evening. “Then, two weeks before early voting, I get this lawsuit? I won’t be silenced.”

The defendant was referring to Cuellar’s upcoming Democratic Primary election, which is slated for March 1, against challenger David Fuentes.

Calls requesting comment from Cuellar were not immediately returned as of press time.

When asked for his thoughts on the suit, Jones said his comments are a matter of free speech.

“His little lawsuit is not going to stop me,” Jones quipped, adding that his remarks are part of a “crusade” he’s helped lead for several years to expose public corruption in the Mid-Valley. “His group has already called and tried to drop it because of the backlash of first amendment rights being violated. … A lot of stuff that I post on Facebook is shared with me, and unlike Weslaco Cheezmeh or Scott Casey or John Smith (anonymous social media accounts), I share who I am. I’m not anonymous and never posted anything anonymously. I have a right to an opinion and I’m an educated guy. I’m not just throwing things out there.”

What’s more, Jones contends that his Facebook comments about Cuellar are also an expression of his concern about the latter’s performance in public office.

“We’ve been on a crusade, or a mission, to expose what goes on, and none of my comments have anything to do with his personal life or personal business, but his mismanagement of his role as Pct. 1 commissioner,” Jones said of Cuellar.

In response to claims that his comments hurt Cuellar’s business, Jones said, “I’m a little surprised that his lawsuit’s claims have nothing to do with his role as commissioner and everything to do with my comments hurting his business. I think that’s a stretch at best, and we’re looking forward to proving that to be false, because I’m having a hard time believing that I’m the only blame of somehow damaging his reputation or hurting his business. And I’m really disappointed in the fact that we have a public official two weeks before an election drawing a bead on a public citizen.”

Jones and Cuellar are expected inside the 93rd District Court for a hearing that’s scheduled for Monday, Feb. 8.