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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, January 19, 2023

Three Men Sentenced for Roles in Bribery Conspiracy

Three Texas men were sentenced yesterday for their roles in a conspiracy to pay bribes to two city commissioners in Weslaco in exchange for their official actions in connection with city contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.

Former Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo C. Cuellar Jr., 69, of Progresso Lakes, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Ricardo Quintanilla, 57, and John F. Cuellar, 60, both of Weslaco, were sentenced to 200 months and three years in prison, respectively. 

“Americans deserve safe, clean water provided through fair and open contracting, not illicit back-room deals,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “As this prosecution demonstrates, the Department of Justice is committed to prosecuting public officials and their enablers who award infrastructure contracts based on corrupt connections instead of merit.”

“Our office will not turn a blind eye to public corruption, especially when it results in significant burdens to residents within our district,” said U.S. Attorney Alamdar S. Hamdani for the Southern District of Texas. “Weslaco was warned for years to upgrade its water infrastructure in order to provide potable water. The defendants used this opportunity to participate in a multimillion-dollar scheme that ultimately saddled residents with debt and bribery costs for their drinking water system. We hope the message in today’s sentencings will deter others from committing such crimes and provide some closure to the citizens of Weslaco.”

According to court documents and evidence presented at trial, Arturo Cuellar and Quintanilla agreed with others to bribe two Weslaco City Commissioners, John Cuellar and Gerardo Tafolla, in exchange for official actions favorable to engineering companies seeking large contracts with the city. From approximately March 2008 through December 2015, one of the participants in the scheme received approximately $4.1 million from two engineering companies and shared nearly $1.4 million with Arturo Cuellar. Arturo Cuellar used a company he controlled to facilitate the payment of approximately $405,000 in bribes to his cousin, John Cuellar, which were disguised as legitimate legal expenses. In exchange for these payments, John Cuellar took several official actions to benefit the companies, including helping to award contracts worth approximately $38.5 million to rehabilitate Weslaco’s water treatment facilities. Quintanilla received approximately $85,000 during the course of the scheme and used that money to pay cash bribes to Tafolla for his official actions to benefit the companies that received the water treatment plant contracts.

Arturo Cuellar and Quintanilla were convicted at trial in the Southern District of Texas in October 2022. Arturo Cuellar was convicted of 61 counts in total, including one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, four counts of honest services wire fraud, one count of federal programs bribery, one count of money laundering conspiracy, 27 counts of money laundering, and 27 counts of Travel Act violations. Quintanilla was convicted of 15 counts in total, including one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, four counts of honest services wire fraud, one count of federal programs bribery, one count of money laundering conspiracy, and eight counts money laundering. John Cuellar pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud in August 2019.

“Today’s sentencing is a testament to the FBI’s commitment to pursue public corruption alongside our law enforcement partners. Any public official who chooses to serve themselves over their constituents will be brought to justice. Rio Grande Valley residents deserve elected leaders who can be trusted,” said Special Agent in Charge Oliver E. Rich Jr. of the FBI San Antonio Field Office. “The FBI would like to thank the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Department of Justice Public Integrity Section, and the IRS for their partnership and dedication to bringing these corrupt individuals to justice.”

“IRS Criminal Investigation remains steadfast in its commitment to quickly unravel public corruption schemes, as these frauds greatly undermine the trust placed by the public in its elected officials,” said Special Agent in Charge Ramsey E. Covington of the IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) Houston Field Office. “No matter how complex the financial fraud, or well-insulated the corrupt officials and individuals or businesses are, our special agents will rigorously work to hold all accountable to face the consequences of their crimes and personal greed. We continuously ask the public to submit allegations of public corruption fraud to IRS-CI, FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

Tafolla pleaded guilty in April 2019 and will be sentenced at a later date. 

The FBI San Antonio Field Office and IRS-CI Houston Field Office investigated the case.

Senior Litigation Counsel Marco A. Palmieri and Trial Attorney William J. Gullotta of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section (PIN) and Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto Lopez Jr. for the Southern District of Texas are prosecuting the case. Deputy Chief of PIN Peter M. Nothstein and former PIN Trial Attorneys Erica O’Brien Waymack and Jessica C. Harvey provided valuable assistance.

Updated January 19, 2023