Various court proceedings in two related federal bribery cases against former Weslaco public officials and local businessmen have been delayed due to the ongoing public health threat posed by the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.
The delays — which include motion hearings, as well as sentencing dates for three men who have pleaded guilty to participating in the multimillion dollar schemes — represent the continuing shift of the federal judiciary as it tries to grapple with the ongoing pandemic amid constitutional requirements that have thus far kept the courts open.
The cases became public last March, when first Leonel Lopez Jr. — formerly the Rio Grande City municipal judge — pleaded guilty to federal programs bribery, followed a few days later by former Weslaco commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla.
Not long after that, federal prosecutors unsealed a 71-count superseding indictment against four more men — former Weslaco commissioner John Cuellar; former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar; David J. Garcia, an attorney from Rio Grande City; and Weslaco businessman Ricardo Quintanilla.
The four men pleaded not guilty to the charges, though John Cuellar later changed his plea to guilty.
Prosecutors say the six men conspired together to skim millions of dollars from the $38.5 million rehabilitation of the city of Weslaco’s water and wastewater treatment facilities for their own personal gain. The years-long scheme allegedly involved at least three construction firms, pay-for-play voting by Weslaco city commissioners, and shell consulting firms used to launder the money to the co-conspirators, according to details revealed in the indictment.
Then, last October, a federal grand jury handed down an indictment against two men in what prosecutors say is a related case. In that case, Quintanilla is accused of conspiring with McAllen hotelier Sunil Wadhwani in a bribery scheme related to Wadhwani’s construction of a Motel 6 in Weslaco.
They both pleaded not guilty.
Another former Weslaco city commissioner, David Fox, also pleaded guilty to perjury for false statements he made to the grand jury.
John Cuellar was set to be sentenced before U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez Monday, while Tafolla was set to be sentenced Thursday. Both hearings were postponed because of the virus, court records show.
“In light of the current guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and the public health authorities, as well as Hidalgo County’s Declaration of Local Disaster, the Court hereby CANCELS said hearing,” read the two orders issued by Alvarez.
Cuellar’s sentencing has been reset for July 22; however, a new date has not been set for Tafolla.
A motions hearing in the hotel case that had been slated to occur Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa was similarly “cancelled until further notice,” according to a minute entry in the case docket.
Sentencing dates for Lopez and Fox remain slated for next month. The trial in the water plant case is still expected to proceed in July, court records show.