Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leonel Lopez Jr. entered a guilty plea of one count last Friday, March 22nd in front of Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa. Documents show Lopez Jr. was charged with one count of bribery involving federal programs.
The charges stem from his involvement in the construction of the City of Weslaco Water Plant. In 2011 the City of Weslaco awarded a contract to Rolando Briones through his company, Briones Consulting and Engineering Ltd. for the design of the water plant. The commission then hired CDM Constructors to manage the project. The two companies were described as a team and had already worked on a Water Plant in Rio Grande City. It was a dispute of $2.4 million dollars with the company that sparked a lawsuit between the City of Weslaco and the vendors. A cost that was described as weather delays but were not in the scope of the original price set.
Rolando H. Briones Jr. explained his relationship with Lopez during his deposition,”He is a friend of mine. He’s also kinda a— what he does for me is political consulting—type work.” As for Lopez’ involvement in the RGC Water Plant Briones explained, “Like he does in a lot of projects we work on, he’ll kinda explain to me the—what people at the city staff, what people on the commission are pro infrastructure, which ones are more—understand at a better dept…” From 2011 to 2015 his firm had paid Leo Lopez $1,676, 487. Briones claimed it was for 12 years of work. The problem is that like most large projects the Weslaco Water Plant was funded by federal funds. According to the accusations against him the RGC Municipal Judge bribed an unnamed Weslaco public official and possibly a county official for contracts connected to the water plant from April 2008 to December of 2015.
The plea agreement states he will need to forfeit $2,514,414 in profits from the project. Lopez was released after posting a $30,0000 bond set my Magistrate J. Scott Hacker. His sentencing is scheduled for July 15th at 9:30am. Court documents state that the charge carries a maximum sentence of ten years and a maximum fine of $250,000.
Eric Vinison for the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct confirmed Monday afternoon that his conviction automatically disqualifies him from serving as a municipal judge but had not yet been informed of the guilty plea.
This isn’t the first issue for the judge, in 2018 he received a public reprimand from the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct Commission on allegations of supporting political candidates. The City Council extended his contract despite the disciplinary procedure. According to an article published by The Monitor Lopez Jr. has already secured with the County. It is still unclear what date he was hired by the County of Starr. While the order of salaries was approved following executive session during the last commission meeting the Human Resources was not seen at the meeting.
Mayor Joel Villarreal stated that he had no more knowledge of the case than the general public but he assured El Tejano that it was not linked to his duties as municipal judge. Villarreal confirmed that they will likely be seeking the appointment of a replacement in the coming days.