The Insider

"Some of these guys," says a knowledgeable observer, "are starting to strut around City Hall like nothing's going to happen to them."

That may be a bit premature.
According to our sources, the feds have now completed their investigation and have drawn up proposed indictments of at least six individuals that will be submitted to the special grand jury that's been considering the evidence. Among that number are expected to be former city councilman Ben Reyes, former port commissioner Betti Maldonado and two sitting members of City Council.

The focus of the sting now temporarily shifts to Washington, D.C., where a high-level Justice Department review team is examining the work of chief prosecutor Mike Attanasio, FBI sting coordinator Ron Stern and others. Not helping move things along is the state of flux inside the Justice Department, where key divisions, including the one overseeing criminal investigations, are without permanent heads.

The review process is something like a mock trial, with the Justice Department's senior prosecutors firing questions at the investigators, testing the case for weak points and holes in the evidence. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno will likely review the work and give the go-ahead before grand jurors in Houston consider indictments. Current estimated time of arrival for the proposed indictments: early May.

So far, the feds do not seem unduly concerned that all the potential indictees are either Hispanic or African-American. That's because investigators are banking that the evidence, when finally unveiled in a public forum, will establish that FBI undercover agents, far from targeting minorities, were directed to specific officials by Reyes.

"We were led by the hand to the people who will be indicted," says one source. "[Reyes] was the captain of our ship."

Ruben on the Menu
If former state district judge Ruben Guerrero wins appointment to the federal bench, he can thank Congressman Gene Green, who pulled out the stops in his support for the well-liked but lightly regarded criminal courthouse denizen.

Green was one of five Democratic members of Congress representing the area covered by the U.S. Southern District of Texas who compiled recommendations on the successor for Judge Norman Black. Green reportedly pushed reluctant colleagues Ken Bentsen and Sheila Jackson Lee into supporting Guerrero by threatening to vote for a non-Houston candidate supported by the two South Texas congressmen in the group, Solomon Ortiz and Ruben Hinojosa.

In exchange for Bentsen's and Lee's support of Guerrero, Green agreed to go along with Houston attorney Keith Ellison as the backup recommendation should Guerrero fail to make it through FBI, American Bar Association and White House screenings.

Guerrero faces partisan hurdles as well. Harris County Republican Chairman Gary Polland has several contacts among Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must approve judicial appointments, and reportedly has vowed to fight Guerrero's nomination. Polland, a fellow criminal defense attorney, reportedly views Guerrero as vulnerable because of his negligible experience in the federal courts.

Whether Guerrero will actually win the appointment is open to question. He lost two electoral bids for district judgeships before being appointed to the bench by Governor Ann Richards in 1993. He lost in the following election, and otherwise has had a legal career consisting mostly of court appointments representing indigent criminal clients and some ad litem appointments in state civil courts.

By contrast, second choice Ellison is a former Supreme Court clerk with federal court experience who represented Democratic members of Congress in the recent redistricting litigation. A courthouse regular says Guerrero was beaming two weeks ago after serving a stint as a visiting justice of the peace and discovering what an easy gig it is performing marriages. His next assignment, if it comes through, figures to be more taxing.

Barr's Blind Date
State District Judge Jim Barr will have to wait until early June to find out whether the State Commission on Judicial Conduct will push for his removal on charges of inappropriate behavior, including jailing a deputy to send a message to lawmen who ignore defense subpoenas and trying out his favorite off-color jokes on female prosecutors.

Commission director Bob Flowers says special magistrate Noah Kennedy is currently reviewing the court transcripts of the recently concluded hearing in Houston and will not have access to a complete version from the court reporter in time to make findings of fact for this month's commission meeting. The commission meets every other month in Austin.

Exactly what Kennedy has to rule on is uncertain, since Barr did not dispute any of the major factual allegations in the case but only sought to put them in a context that would exonerate his behavior. When the 11-member commission meets in June, it will vote on whether to reprimand Barr or authorize the selection of a tribunal of appeals court judges to consider his removal from office.

Meanwhile, commission lawyers are gearing up for an April 29 hearing in Houston to consider possible punishment for District Judge William "Bill" Bell, who is accused of improper out-of-court contact with lawyers involved in litigation in his court. Though the testimony will lack the salaciousness of the Barr hearing, expect a passel of big-name lawyers, including John O'Quinn and Vinson & Elkins's Margaret Wilson, to testify in this one.

Call The Insider at 624-1483, fax him at 624-1496 or e-mail him at Insider@houston-press.com.

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