Hanging the Judge

Lupe Salinas made a lot of friends on his journey from a Rio Grande Valley childhood to becoming a dogged prosecutor and respected state district judge. Until he was tapped for a federal judgeship, he never knew how many enemies he had.

"She was throwing around the patronage," says one lawyer. "She could keep those people working if they left Salinas alone. She knew what she was doing in order to work that little game. And then all of a sudden, no federal court. Well, that's a very tough letdown, to be told that your political boss, whose ass you've covered and whose frogs you've kissed or turned into princes, if need be, for him, all of a sudden doesn't think you're worth the big lifetime appointment for him."

Warden is connected as closely to the Houston law enforcement community as a person can be short of wearing a badge or prosecuting a case. Her husband, Bill Warden, is a deputy to Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia. Her sister, Natalie Fleming, is an assistant district attorney under District Attorney Johnny Holmes. Her sister's husband works in the County Attorney's office.

As Salinas has learned, severing such a well-connected right hand can be hazardous to one's political health, particularly if one has sworn to erroneous campaign reports jointly prepared with that right hand in a county whose district attorney tends to investigate allegations of political misfeasance only when whistle blowers or inquiring journalists darken his door.

Warden left her job with Salinas' court in April, and within a month Holmes received a call from Ron Woods, the U.S. Attorney in Houston during the Bush administration who had turned to defense work after leaving the government. Woods explained that he represented a Lilly Warden, who had a number of things she wanted to tell the district attorney about Lupe Salinas -- if she were not prosecuted for her role in some of those matters.

In late May, Salinas says, he received a call from Warden, who told him the district attorney's office was investigating a $1,000 contribution to his campaign fund from lawyer Cruz Cervantes. "It started with her basically accusing or stating, 'You remember the thousand dollars you received in that envelope.' And of course, I immediately questioned her as to what she was saying," Salinas recalls. "It was only later in the conversation that I began to be concerned that she was trying to steer me into saying certain things. She said she was worried they were going to come talk to her. I don't know if that's true or not, but the bottom line is she was expressing those concerns. I advised her to, of course, tell the truth, but that what she was saying was not correct. And then heaven knows what she may have specifically stated to the district attorneys."

Holmes has little doubt about Warden's motivation.
"She knew she'd been dumped in the deep fat long before she came to us," he says. "She wasn't going to be a part of Judge Salinas' federal trip. I don't think she was spirited by outrage that the law had been violated.

"But that's never the case. When somebody brings us this stuff ... it's either an opponent, friend of the other side or the media, and they write a big story about what they have found. Their motive is not to prevent corrupt conduct, not outrage at the violation of the law, but," and here his voice drops to a mock whisper, "they get 'em a scoop!"

Holmes says he took Warden seriously because of Woods -- "a lawyer who had credibility with me" -- and in effect granted her immunity in return for information. "I suspect she felt like she was acting together as a party [with Salinas]. She felt she had some exposure, to go and talk to the lawyer about it before she came forward. The accusation could be made that she was just as guilty as Lupe. I don't find that surprising."

Warden declined to be interviewed for this story, but a source close to her portrays the court coordinator as a frightened ex-employee who was not seeking revenge on the judge but rather trying to protect herself. In the scenario the source sketches, Warden was initially contacted by a member of the district attorney's staff and told the FBI wanted to talk to her, and she misinterpreted that notification of a routine federal background check on Salinas as a warning she was under

investigation. Fearing she might be held responsible for Salinas' campaign reporting violations, Warden consulted with her sister the assistant district attorney and then retained Woods, who initiated contact with Holmes.

While Warden remains mum, her husband spoke to the Press on behalf of the court coordinator, who after leaving Salinas' court went to work at the same job for another judge.

"First, Lilly has no ill will toward Lupe and never has," says Bill Warden. "We've been hurt by the accusation that Lupe has made using Lilly as an excuse for his present problems. He has been adamant that her record-keeping has been the sole source of his problems that led to his perjury indictment. I don't feel it's fair and I hardly think that would be the scope of his defense at his trial."

Warden says his wife was well aware that she wouldn't be a part of Salinas' federal staff because the judge had previously told his state district court aides to begin looking for other jobs after he had been recommended by Brooks for an appointment to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Several other people who spoke with Warden discount her husband's explanation and say she was indeed angry at Salinas.)

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