Agreement reached in defamation lawsuit

EDINBURG — Facebook will look a little different for Mid-Valley residents accustomed to seeing local political activity on their newsfeed.

At least now that a settlement reached on Monday in Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar Jr.’s defamation lawsuit will prohibit one of his most vocal critics from making any comments about the elected official on the social media website.

According to the terms of the agreement, Laguna Vista resident Mike Jones cannot post any comments about Cuellar on Facebook until May 2. Also, Jones was given until 8 a.m. Tuesday to delete previous remarks that allegedly hurt the commissioner’s business and reputation.

The comments in question allegedly accused Cuellar of fraud, bribery and for being under FBI investigation as well as repaying campaign contributions by “diverting” $4.5 million to Pharr.

If the terms are satisfied, Cuellar will drop his lawsuit, which seeks anywhere from $200,000 to $1 million in damages, but will not waive future defamation claims.

“I’m okay with it,” Jones, a Donna native and longtime Weslaco resident, said of the terms before referencing the upcoming March Primary, in which Cuellar is being challenged by David Fuentes. “I’ve been after it for three years, and I think the better man will win the election on March 1.”

Jones took to Facebook shortly after the hearing to contend that he stands by “every post, comment and like I have ever made.” Jones’ comment went on to explain that he agreed to delete the posts associated with the lawsuit “not because they weren’t true but simply because this fight has taken a toll on my family who I love dearly…”

And before calling the settlement a “victory” for his family, Jones added, “My voice has not been silenced…”

Attorney Ruben Peña, who took over for Jones, Galligan, Key & Lozano LLP as Jones’ representation in the case, said his client has also agreed to refrain from posting about the office of Pct. 1 and Cuellar’s campaign.

“One of the main things is the attorneys for Commissioner Cuellar recognized that if we couldn’t settle it today, this was going to be a long-drawn-out process, and we were prepared to go to the Court of Appeals and take this up with them,” Peña said following Monday’s proceedings. “But for my client, I think this has really put to bed what I would call a very exhausting and trying situation.”

Prior to the settlement agreement, Jones had filed a subpoena requesting Cuellar’s personal and business-related financial statements dating back to 2010; as well as contracts between the commissioner’s business, J-III Concrete, and the cities of Weslaco, Mercedes, La Villa, Edcouch, Elsa, Donna, San Juan, Progreso and Hidalgo County.

The agreement, however, did not require Cuellar to produce the documents.

When asked how Jones benefits from the agreement, Peña said, “We get the whole lawsuit dismissed.”

Peña began representing Jones on Monday following the recent withdrawal of the latter’s previous legal counsel — Jones, Galligan, Key & Lozano LLP. This came after Cuellar’s attorney, Armando M. Guerra of Armando M. Guerra & Associates, filed a motion to disqualify Jones, Galligan, Key & Lozano LLP for either currently representing or “in the very recent past” had represented the commissioner.

“In fact, we believe Jones, Galligan, Key & Lozano LLP has represented A.C. Cuellar Jr. in various capacities for approximately 20 years,” a statement from Guerra read. “We believe that this (Jones, Galligan, Key & Lozano LLP’s representation of Cuellar) causes a conflict of interest with their continued representation of Michael Jones in the suit involving A.C. Cuellar Jr.”

Monitor staff writer Kristian Hernandez contributed to this report.