BY DINA ARÉVALO | STAFF WRITER
The ongoing investigation into wrongdoing regarding a multi-million dollar improvement project for Weslaco water treatment facilities hit a snag last week after a state district judge ruled against allowing the city to release information to federal investigators.
According to Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez, a federal grand jury issued a subpoena to the city of Weslaco seeking documents obtained during its civil case against Rolando Briones Jr. and his firm, Briones Consulting and Engineering Ltd.
The request for the documents came at the behest of a law enforcement agency, court records show. But the city did not include details of that agency or its identity in its motion to dissolve the confidentiality agreement, a fact highlighted by Briones’ attorneys in their initial response to the motion.
In a lawsuit filed in March 2016, the city alleged Briones and his firm had been negligent in the construction of the $38 million water treatment facility, parts of which remain inoperable to this day.
The city also alleged that Briones had committed negligent misrepresentation and fraud by misrepresenting the value of his professional design services on the project — charging double the market rate for such services, according to the lawsuit.
The city — which had been seeking $3 million in the suit — ultimately settled the case for $1.9 million last January; however, activity on the case resumed this January when Weslaco filed a motion to modify its confidentiality agreement with Briones after receiving a subpoena from a federal grand jury.
“When you get a subpoena from the grand jury you gotta produce,” Perez said Thursday.
“We had to the tell the U.S. Attorney’s Office that we could not give it to them because of this order, so we went to the courthouse, asked the judge to allow us to give it to them and the judge ruled against the city and said no,” he said.
Both the city and Briones agreed to the confidentiality and protective order in January 2017 after Briones’ attorneys argued that records the city requested during the discovery process contained sensitive commercial and financial information.
That information included Briones’ income tax returns, personal and commercial bank and financial statements, and profit and loss reports, according to court documents.
Briones’ attorneys argued that the city of Weslaco had not sufficiently proven the existence of extraordinary circumstances that would allow for the confidentiality agreement to be dissolved.
The attorneys also argued that the unnamed law enforcement agency, which they described as a “federal law-enforcement agency,” as an arm of the federal government, already has “awesome” criminal investigatory powers at its disposal.
“In fact, dissolving or modifying protective orders to give a governmental entity access to confidential and/or protected information for an investigation into a potential prosecution … would undermine the purpose of protective orders in our established civil procedural system,” Briones’ attorneys argued in court documents.
Perez said the city received the subpoena several months ago, and that it is separate from a subpoena similarly related to the water plant the city received last spring. That subpoena required it to hand over city commission records spanning a decade.
Fruit from that investigation has recently led to allegations of a complex bribery scheme, including a guilty plea by now-former Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Leo Lopez Jr. and charges against Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla.
Asked if this new subpoena is related to the ongoing bribery case, Perez declined to comment. “The facts speak for themselves,” he said.
However, Briones’ attorneys also argued that dissolving the confidentiality agreement could violate his Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination since the financial documents were disclosed under the assumption of confidentiality.
For now, no charges have been filed against Briones.