By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
"Look, Daddy, Here's a Present"
Ben Reyes gestured to an assistant standing beside an erasable display board that had been set up in the small Galleria-area office of a man Reyes knew as Carlos Montero. A paid FBI informant playing the role of a Latin-American businessman for the non-existent Cayman Group, Montero had just asked Reyes how much money he needed to budget to guarantee the votes of Houston City Council members for developer Wayne Duddlesten's bid to build a taxpayer-subsidized downtown hotel. It was January 8, 1996, and Reyes was barely a week into his new role as a private citizen after nearly two decades as a city councilman.
As Reyes began speaking, the assistant took a marker and dutifully scribbled down names and numbers on the board. While the list in no way establishes who eventually accepted money for supporting Duddlesten's bid, it may offer some indication of the value Reyes put on the political skins of his former colleagues.
According to an affidavit authored by FBI special agent Ron Stern, on the board beside the names of Jew Don Boney, Martha Wong, Judson Robinson III, Helen Huey, Felix Fraga and Ray Driscoll was written the figure $1,000. Next to the name of Betti Maldonado, who at the time was a city representative on the Port Commission, was $1,500. Michael Yarbrough and John Castillo, a longtime associate of Reyes's who succeeded him on Council, were each earmarked for $3,000. Next to John Peavy's name was the amount of $5,000, to be paid, as Reyes allegedly explained it, in two $2,500 installments: one before the Council vote on the hotel and the second if the Duddlesten project was selected.
After Reyes finished running down his plan to ensure the upcoming Council vote went in Duddlesten's favor, he allegedly told Montero it was time for the Cayman Group to get busy.
"Now we have to go out and purchase us some leaders," Reyes purportedly said, unaware that FBI video cameras and tape recorders were capturing his real-world political science lecture for posterity.
The scene at Montero's office is among many vignettes and new details of the 26-month investigation of corruption at Houston's City Hall outlined in Stern's affidavit, which was unsealed after the Hotel Six indictment was returned in late July. The 22-page statement provided the justification for a federal court order authorizing "non-consensual" wiretaps and videotaping of suspects in the probe. Filed with a judge on January 19, 1996, Stern's affidavit raises previously undisclosed allegations about several people who were not named in the indictment that was issued 19 months later. It also answers the question that neither the FBInor the U.S. Justice Department has been willing to publicly address since the existence of the investigation was first revealed in May 1996:Why was Reyes targeted for a sting?
Of the nine councilmembers whose names were written on the board at Montero's office, only Peavy, Castillo and Yarbrough now stand accused of accepting Reyes's poisonous presents. Maldonado was indicted for her alleged role in soliciting councilmembers for Reyes's scheme who were not particularly close to the ex-councilman. Reyes himself and his longtime Council aide, Ross Allyn, who was working for developer Duddlesten at the time of the meeting in Montero's office, also were indicted. All have pleaded innocent to charges of conspiracy and bribery, and U.S. District Judge David Hittner has warned the parties in the case not to speak with the media.
But back on that January day at Montero's office, Reyes was extremely talkative, at least according to Stern's affidavit. After spelling out the cash he said he needed to influence his former colleagues, Reyes extended his wish list a bit further.
"What we need is ... a private office where we can ... we won't have any problems saying that, this, this and that," Stern quoted Reyes as telling Montero, who proved only too happy to comply. Shortly thereafter the FBI provided Reyes with his requested nest, a two-story townhouse at the Phoenician complex on Bering Drive, where the palm trees, fountains and security gates conjure the image of a secure tropic hideaway only slightly less bogus than the Cayman Group itself.
Unknown to Reyes, however, it wasn't really the sort of place where a circumspect individual would want to say "that, this, this and that," because the audience went far beyond the walls of apartment No. 712 at the Phoenician. Thanks to the federal court order requested by Stern, the government had bugged the phone number, (713) 953-7354, miked the rooms and secreted mini-video cameras to record the action from a plethora of angles. Stern claimed in his affidavit that the electronic spying was necessary because standard investigatory tools such as informers, search warrants and physical surveillance had failed or would be unlikely to succeed in trapping Reyes and his associates.
"This is in large part due to the pattern that has developed," explained Stern, "whereby Ben Reyes is the only point of contact between the undercover agent or confidential witness and each member of Houston City Council who is taking money in exchange for votes."
Continued Stern: "The interception of oral and wire communications and visual, non-verbal conduct and activities between Ben Reyes and other recipients of illegal payments is the only way to determine the nature and extent of their illegal activity."