By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Welcome to Hotel Six
Don K. Clark, the senior agent-in-charge of the Houston FBI office, was noticeably uncomfortable in his role as a press release reader at last week's non-news conference following the indictment in the Hotel Six sting. The slight, unprepossessing Clark added nothing of detail to the Justice Department's bill of particulars charging bribery and conspiracy against Councilmen John Castillo and Michael Yarbrough, former councilmen John Peavy and Ben Reyes, Reyes's onetime aide Ross Allyn and former port commissioner Betti Maldonado.
In fact, Clark's underwhelming performance did little more than put a long, black face on an investigation under fire long before the indictments came down for targeting mostly minority politicians and operatives. Only Allyn is an Anglo, and after so many years in Reyes's orbit, jokes one observer, "he's an honorary Hispanic."
Peppered repeatedly by reporters as to the genesis of the sting, an exasperated Clark finally advised his tormentors to read the 25-page, 11-count indictment, seemingly unaware that it shed no light on that particular issue. Of course, had Clark wanted to be candid, he could have simply mouthed two words: Ron Stern.
Stern, as any student of sting would know, was the mustachioed agent in charge of the successful effort to net Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry for indulging in a recreational crack habit. The day that Barry was convicted, Stern and his wife Julia, then a lawyer in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in D.C. and now on U.S. Attorney Gaynelle Griffin Jones's appeals staff here, moved their family to Houston. For the Hotel Six, it was a disastrous choice of destination.
It seems you can take the special agent out of the sting, but you can't take the sting out of the special agent. It was Stern who came up with the idea of weaving a custom-designed net to ensnare the old graying fox of Houston politics, Ben Reyes. The councilman had long been dogged by accusations from embittered former associates and political enemies that he used his Council seat to enrich himself and family members, but no one had been able to make the charges stick.
District Attorney Johnny Holmes tried to nail Reyes on felony charges in the late eighties, but had to settle for misdemeanor pleadings on illegal campaign contributions and the theft of a magnolia tree. The district attorney's staffers worked hard to link Reyes with Mexican figures reputed to be involved in the narcotics trade, but failed.
This time around, the effort would come from the opposite direction. Rather than trying to prove Reyes's associations with crime figures, the feds would lure him to break the law using a genuine Latin American informant, "Carlos Montero," and an FBI agent, Marcos Correa, both noms de guerres adopted for the operation.
Clark declined to comment when asked whether Montero had previously been a target of federal prosecution. Once the sting had begun to play out, Reyes would describe Montero and Correa to Betti Maldonado as "bad guys" -- possibly cops or drug dealers. He may have been right on both counts.
In order to link up with Reyes, the pair, operating as the Cayman Group, were introduced to the then-councilman by Berta Flores, a community activist previously considered hostile to Reyes and a supporter of Gene Green in his 1992 congressional runoff victory over Reyes. Flores was also considered something of a flake in Bob Lanier's campaign circles when she worked for Lanier in 1991 -- not a likely candidate to be entrusted with the delicate task of implanting the stingers into Reyes's inner circle.
"Berta's role is the big question, the missing piece in my mind," says Marc Campos, a consultant who knows the cast of characters well. "Everything I know about her says she's not the right person for the role." Flores's involvement suggests that anti-Reyes politicos may have assisted the FBI in setting up the sting.
Reyes certainly welcomed the cash provided by the Cayman operatives. A few months before Maldonado broke with the FBI and outed the investigation in May 1996, Reyes held court at a Montrose cafe and bragged that he had found some new business associates who were providing him with unlimited funding. The indictment claims Reyes received a satchel containing $50,000 in $50 bills provided by Montero during a meeting at Montero's apartment on December 1, 1995, while Reyes was still a member of Council. In another bar conversation after the sting became public, Reyes claimed he received more than $80,000 from the agents, an amount not documented in the indictment. Reyes's attorney Mike Ramsey has characterized his client's involvement as simply playing along with the agents to see what he could get.
The indictment alleges that Reyes spread some of the wealth in early January of last year in the form of $2,500 to Peavy and $1,500 to Yarbrough, passed to the councilmembers in the men's room of a Houston restaurant. Reyes also allegedly gave Castillo $3,000 at the restaurant several days earlier. That eatery is the trendy Carrabba's on Kirby, at one time a favorite hangout of Reyes's. (The indictment also accuses Castillo of accepting another $3,000 in cash from Maldonado at a restaurant, which Maldonado previously identified as the coffee shop of the downtown Hyatt; Peavy likewise is accused of taking a second $2,500 bribe from Correa in a restaurant parking lot, while Yarbrough is alleged to have taken another $1,500 in the Cayman Group's office.)