Businessman who bribed city commissioner avoids prison

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McALLEN, TEXAS (ValleyCentral) — A businessman who bribed a member of the Weslaco City Commission avoided prison Tuesday.

Sunil Wadhwani, 61, of McAllen — a wealthy businessman who owns hotels in Hidalgo County — paid at least $4,000 to Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla. In exchange, Tafolla voted to approve $300,000 in economic incentives for a hotel Wadhwani planned to build.

“I take full responsibility, your honor,” Wadhwani said Tuesday, when he appeared before U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa for sentencing. “I had a choice to make, and I made the wrong one.”

The federal courthouse in McAllen. (Photo by Mark Munoz / CBS 4 News)

The conspiracy started in 2013, when Wadhwani struck a deal with the Weslaco Economic Development Corp.

Wadhwani agreed to build a Motel 6 near the intersection of Interstate 2 and Border Avenue in Weslaco.

It’d cost about $3 million. To support the project, the Weslaco EDC agreed to pay $300,000 to Wadhwani’s company.

Wadhwani received a $2.8 million loan for the Motel 6 project “contingent upon the borrower providing proof of $150,000 in funding from the City of Weslaco prior to closing,” according to the criminal complaint against him.

The Weslaco EDC, however, proposed a $50,000 payment when the hotel received a certificate of occupancy, according to the criminal complaint, and $50,000 a year for the next five years.

That created a problem for Wadhwani, who needed $150,000 up front.

At some point during the process, Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla and Leonel J. Lopez Jr., a powerful Starr County politician, approached Wadhwani.

“I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Wadhwani said.

Former Weslaco city commissioner who accepted bribes avoids prison

Wadhwani paid them “thousands of dollars,” according to the criminal complaint, to speed up the payment schedule.

Quintanilla passed money along to Tafolla, who served on the Weslaco City Commission and the Weslaco EDC board.

Exactly how much Wadhwani paid them remains unclear.

Leonel J. Lopez Jr. said he’d seen a bag that contained up to $40,000, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr., who prosecuted the case.

When he pleaded guilty, though, Wadhwani only admitted to paying “at least $4,000” to Tafolla.

Leonel J. Lopez Jr. pleaded guilty to bribery but died while awaiting sentencing. Tafolla and Quintanilla were both convicted on bribery charges.

The FBI arrested Wadhwani in 2019.

At first, Wadhwani claimed he was actually a victim — not a criminal.

“The evidence will show at trial that Wadhwani was extorted and threatened by Quintanilla, Leo Lopez, Jerry Tafolla, and others,” according to a motion his attorney, Michael Wynne of Houston, filed in December 2019. “He was told to pay money or his hotel project — which he personally guaranteed — would be continuously delayed by the city, draining his resources and threatening his company with financial ruin. Wadhwani was a victim of a shakedown, not a participant in a conspiracy.”

After consulting with other attorneys, Wadhwani changed his plea and started cooperating with the government.

Wadhwani agreed to testify against Quintanilla in a separate case and provided the government with at least one receipt purportedly signed by Quintanilla, which showed a payment in January 2014.

Faced with the prospect of Wadhwani’s testimony, Quintanilla’s attorneys decided to drop a possible defense, Bobby Lopez said.

“Just because he didn’t testify doesn’t mean he wasn’t helpful,” Bobby Lopez said.

Wadhwani returned to court Tuesday for sentencing.

Hinojosa, the federal judge, said U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines recommended 12 to 18 months in prison.

To reward Wadhwani for his cooperation, the government filed a motion to reduce his sentence by a third, Bobby Lopez said.

Hinojosa settled on time served — the day Wadhwani spent in jail after his arrest — and two years on supervised release. He also ordered Wadhwani to pay a $50,000 fine.

After reviewing the case, Hinojosa said he still couldn’t understand why Wadhwani made such a bad decision.

“You need to apologize to your family,” Hinojosa said. “You need to apologize to your community.”

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