News Feature | April 4, 2019

Feds Detail Bribery Scheme Over $38 Million Water Treatment Plant Project

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

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A multi-million dollar water treatment facility renovation in Texas has drawn interest from the federal government. And not for its impact on clean drinking water.

“Speculation over whether Weslaco city commissioners were involved in an alleged bribery scheme involving the city’s $38 million overhaul of its water treatment facilities appear to have been on target, at least according to an audio recording in which a federal prosecutor said two officials accepted payments in exchange for awarding contracts to three companies,” The Monitor reported.

The revelations were made during a re-arraignment for a now-former municipal judge, Leonel Lopez Jr., who pleaded guilty to bribery. The investigation involved both the FBI and IRS.

“Beginning in 2008 through about December 2016, Lopez, 52, orchestrated a scheme to bribe two Weslaco city commissioners in exchange for votes that would benefit companies dubbed A, B and C by the government,” per The Monitor. “Company A was identified as an international engineering and construction company that performed large scale infrastructure projects for public and private clients. Company B was described as an engineering company based in San Antonio; and Company C as an engineering company based in McAllen.”

Lopez received over $4 million in bribe payments for false consulting with Company B, the prosecutor said, and he then used those funds to pay off two local commissioners — keeping over $2 million for himself.

“Commissioner A is an attorney who served on the Weslaco City Commission from about 1995 to 2014, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto Lopez,” according to Progress Times. “Commissioner B is a current member of the Weslaco City commission who was elected in 2009. Both accepted bribes.”

The project itself was described as a rehabilitation and expansion of the local water processing facility, for which the engineering and construction firms were hired.

In the case’s latest development, the FBI arrested local businessman Ricardo Quintanilla on money laundering and fraud charges. He pleaded not guilty this week.

“Lopez allegedly wrote 41 checks to Quintanilla from about August 2011 to about October 2014,” according to a follow up report from The Monitor. “In exchange for the money, the Weslaco commissioner voted in favor of granting contracts for the construction and rehabilitation of the water treatment facilities to those companies.”

Image credit: "Money," Keith Cooper © 2012, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/