FBI Agent Takes Witness Stand in Weslaco Water Treatment Plant Corruption Trial – Progress Times
In 2016, the FBI came across something strange.
The contractors had written large checks to the municipal judge of the city of Rio Grande, Leonel J. Lopez Jr.
One had “Weslaco WTP” written on the memo line. The FBI wanted to know why.
“Mr. Lopez’s bank statements were kind of the root of this case,” said FBI Special Agent Jason Malkiewicz, who testified Monday in the water treatment plant bribery trial. Westlaco.
Why the FBI had the bank records, however, remains unclear.
Malkiewicz said the FBI requested the bank records during another investigation — an investigation that apparently did not involve the Weslaco water treatment plant.
When the FBI reviewed the records, agents discovered large payments to Lopez in 2012 and 2013.
JF Trenching & Paving Construction of Rio Grande City paid him $170,000. Donna’s Eberle Materials paid her $75,000. And McAllen’s LeFevre Environmental & Management Consulting paid him $70,000.
They had all worked on infrastructure projects at Weslaco – and Eberle’s check had “Weslaco WTP” written on the memo line.
The FBI also found checks for former Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “AC” Cuellar, 68, of Progreso Lakes and businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, 55, of Weslaco.
Officers began to investigate. Malkiewicz, a rookie agent who had just graduated from the academy, took care of the heavy work.
The FBI subpoenaed more bank documents and Malkiewicz spent “hundreds of hours” logging the documents.
They showed the contractors paid Lopez approximately $4.1 million.
Lopez, in turn, funneled nearly $1.4 million to AC Cuellar and nearly $86,000 to Quintanilla, according to the indictment against them.
Quality Ready Mix, a company co-owned by AC Cuellar, paid about $405,000 to his cousin, Weslaco Town Commissioner John F. Cuellar.
Quintanilla cashed the checks and split the money with his friend, Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla, according to the indictment.
In exchange, John Cuellar and Tafolla approved contracts with the engineers worth more than $50 million, including work on the Weslaco water treatment plant.
The investigation, which prosecutors call “tarnished water,” has become one of the biggest public corruption cases in Hidalgo County in the past decade.
Lopez and three members of the Weslaco City Commission confessed to participating in the plot. AC Cuellar and Quintanilla, meanwhile, pleaded not guilty and took the case to court.
Malkiewicz, who testified Monday, revealed new details about the FBI investigation.
In late June or early July 2016, when he arrived in McAllen, the local FBI Public Corruption Team was down to just three or four agents, Malkiewicz said.
The investigation officially began on July 5, 2016, shortly after his arrival.
Malkiewicz began by logging bank statements, reviewing minutes of Weslaco Town Commission meetings, and reading news articles, including an investigation by former Monitor reporter Elizabeth Findell.
The FBI spent months reviewing the documents before agents interviewed the first witness, Mari Garza-Bird.
Garza-Bird had worked for CDM, a Boston-based construction and engineering company that managed the Weslaco project.
Officers decided to interview Garza-Bird first because she had left CDM and moved to California, which minimized the risk of others finding out about the interview.
Perhaps the most important interview took place in November 2017, when agents met with Lopez.
“He agreed to wear what a lot of people would call a thread,” Malkiewicz said, and recorded conversations with Tafolla and Quintanilla.
Lopez also provided the FBI with text messages and emails.
The emails included a November 6, 2012 message from Richard LeFevre, owner of LeFevre Environmental & Management Consulting, to Lopez.
“Hey,” LeFevre wrote. ” we need to. it will protect us. call me.”
LeFevre attached a “consulting and marketing” agreement dated January 1, 2012, months before the email was sent.
The FBI ultimately issued over 120 subpoenas and interviewed approximately 40 to 50 people. Officers also obtained a search warrant for Quintanilla’s cell phone.
In January 2019, Malkiewicz and another FBI agent waited outside Quintanilla’s house. After waiting a while, they decided to knock on the front door.
When they approached the door, someone spoke to them through a doorbell camera.
Malkiewicz, seemingly unsure of what to say, claimed they were salespeople. The agent accompanying him, however, had a taste for tailored suits and didn’t seem like he was up to it.
After they left, a car drove slowly through the neighborhood, as if looking for something wrong. Malkiewicz said the license plate appeared to be tied to Quintanilla’s employer.
Attorney Carlos A. Garcia, who represents AC Cuellar, asked Malkiewicz about comments made by another FBI agent in February 2018 when they interviewed John Cuellar.
Officers knocked on John Cuellar’s door and questioned him for hours. In the middle of the conversation, someone interrupted the interview and John Cuellar walked away from the officers.
The other FBI agent said they should “pound his ass,” Garcia said, seemingly a reference to pushing harder for a confession.
Malkiewicz listened to the audio of the interview but said he couldn’t hear the commentary.
“I heard words,” Malkiewicz said. “I could hear, maybe ‘ass’.”
Garcia and attorney Jaime Peña de McAllen, who represents Quintanilla, also suggested Malkiewicz conducted an incomplete investigation.
Peña questioned why the FBI asked for bank statements for Lopez but not for Quintanilla, who is accused of cashing checks.
The bank statements would show whether or not Quintanilla actually deposited the money in another account, Peña said, and would reveal other relevant information.
Malkiewicz said the FBI did not identify Quintanilla’s bank accounts during the investigation.
Testimony is due to continue on Tuesday.