By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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Welcome to the smoky rooms and overheated corridors of Hotel Six, where the closed-circuit television picks up excellent deception, the air crackles with currents of duplicity and the concierge thoughtfully leaves the bugs on all night to record guests' every utterance.
It's not the sort of place you'd want to linger, but for a handful of politically prominent Houstonians locked in its hallways, the visit seems to have stretched over a lifetime. They can't wait to check out, but only a jury has the power to release them -- or to throw away the keys.
You see, Hotel Six (or "Operation Parallax," as the FBI curiously christened it) isn't a hotel at all, but rather, a trap built of illusions cemented by collusion and baited with cash to tempt city of Houston politicians. Inaugurated in the summer of 1995 with two Hispanic undercover agents posing as investors of the nonexistent Cayman Group, the operation is only now unfolding in public view.
And what a view federal court provides for lucky spectators able to cram into Judge David Hittner's tiny eighth-floor courtroom downtown. The trial has all the elements of a smash TV miniseries, mixing the gadgetry of high-tech law enforcement with the intrigue and seedy glamour of undercover agents offering bribes in parking lots and the bathrooms of swanky restaurants.
A screenwriter couldn't have concocted a more riveting script, its dialogue chock full of unintentional dark humor and the X-rated language of street politics. At its best moments, a state-of-the art CD-ROM system called TrialDirector delivers graphic audio and video on which elected officials take the cash and talk the trash through courtroom monitors and speakers.
Topping the marquee is former councilman Ben Reyes and his hit political-science lecture "Buy Yourselves Some Leaders." Almost as hot, according to our sneak-preview reviewer, is Councilman Michael Yarbrough's tour de force performance as the brokenhearted official who only received $1,500 from the feds when he was promised $3,000. But don't reach for the hankies just yet. This video has a happy ending, as Yarbrough is finally handed the missing money he was promised. Of course, only the reviewers in the jury box will have the last word on whether those cash payments were felony bribes or innocuous campaign contributions.
At the center of Hotel Six, sitting seemingly unruffled and serene in the dock, is Reyes himself, the old gray fox of Houston City Council, a maestro in his day at manipulating the levers of city government and a legislative sculptor who makes the new generation of term-limited councilmembers seem like very slow school kids. Reyes is accused of directing a conspiracy to bribe councilmembers John Castillo, John Peavy and Yarbrough to support the downtown convention center hotel plan with cash supplied by the undercover agents. (Peavy later resigned from Council because of an unrelated ethics matter.)
Reyes -- described by his attorney Mike Ramsey as controversial "and as radioactive as he can be" -- in his lengthy political career has displayed two public faces. One is that of the man who literally invented grassroots Hispanic politics in the city and led his constituents to the limited empowerment they enjoy today. But he also bears an uglier visage: that of a power broker often accused of using public office to exploit business opportunities for himself, his family and his associates.
The FBI sting team targeted Reyes from the beginning and then followed his directions to ensnare other city officials with offers of cash. The theme of the federal case, and perhaps the most sensational visual display to be unveiled at the trial, is the January 8, 1996, videotape of the lecture Reyes delivered to his Cayman partners, as well as co-defendant Ross Allyn, at a West Houston apartment complex on Bering Drive.
The sting team included FBI informant Julio Molineiro, a.k.a. Carlos Montero. Montero asked Reyes how much money he needed to budget in the future to guarantee the votes of Houston City Council members for developer Wayne Duddlesten's downtown hotel proposal.
As Reyes began speaking, an assistant dutifully scribbled down names and numbers on an erasable board. Included on the list were John Peavy for $5,000, with $2,500 before the vote and $2,500 after the vote if Duddlesten won; and $3,000 each for Michael Yarbrough and John E. Castillo, a former associate of Reyes and his successor on Council.
After Reyes finished, he told Montero it was time to get to work. "Now we have to go out and purchase us some leaders," he said, unaware that his little chat would someday be played back in a courtroom.
"Those words at the heart of this case came out of the mouth of this man," declared prosecutor Mike Attanasio in his opening statement last week, pointing to Reyes.
Perhaps so -- but Hotel Six has many hearts.
A wisecracking Judge Hittner regaled prospective jurors last week like a cable-TV salesman pitching a new channel. Trying to cheer up a crowd facing the depressing prospect of losing two months of their working lives to a marathon trial, the judge promised a "very interesting case" and the rare chance to witness some of the finest trial lawyers and prosecutors in the country. Hittner, known to relish high-profile cases, could hardly contain his enthusiasm for the spectacle.