By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
He certainly wasn't exaggerating about the legal talent. The cream of the Houston criminal defense corps is matched toe-to-toe with an elite Justice Department sting team, and there are almost as many lines of attack and defense as there are hours of tape (at last count, around 400). The spectacle of the brothers Dick DeGuerin and Mike DeGeurin, Mike Ramsey, Dan Cogdell, Bob Bennett, Max Secrest and Paul Nugent all crammed around the defense table brought to mind the superstar-laden Houston Rockets. Could so many egos, saddled with all the differing interests of their clients, play together in the same courtroom?
At least three of the lawyers have the advantage of having worked together and successfully beaten another federal sting offense. This past November, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt threw out indictments against three robotics manufacturing executives after concluding that the government had failed to prove its case. The trio was represented by Dick DeGuerin, Ramsey and Cogdell. Their clients had been charged with contract fraud in an investigation that was part of the fallout from Operation Lightning Strike, another controversial FBI sting that targeted members of the Houston aerospace industry. And in the only other Lightning Strike-related case to actually go to trial, Dick DeGuerin represented bribery defendant Dale Brown. After a hung jury, the government dropped its case against Brown.
Still, Hotel Six poses daunting problems for the superstar defense attorneys. "In a case like this, where you've got six people -- where you really have six different cases -- sometimes you're stepping on each other's toes," admits a member of the defense team.
During the course of the trial, at times one defendant or another is bound to look a little more guilty than some of the others. And when one defendant begins to stink, a defense attorney can be tempted to improve his client's position at the expense of the smelly co-defendant.
The opening statements illustrated that problem, as Dick DeGuerin declared his client Maldonado knew nothing of payments that Mike DeGeurin's client Yarbrough had received. And attorney Nugent told jurors Ross Allyn didn't realize that wrongdoing was going on because whenever Molineiro "wanted to talk dirty, he talked in Spanish to Ben [Reyes]." Allyn, noted Nugent, doesn't speak Spanish.
"The government loves for that to happen," says a defense source. "That's why they indict people together, to try and benefit from that crossfire. To avoid that, you have to understand what everybody else's case is about and try to do as little harm as possible. We don't need to have more than one prosecutor in the courtroom."
Actually, there are two already: Mike Attanasio and John Scott. But the feds' main man is Attanasio, the son of a major-league baseball agent. His powers of persuasion over a Texas jury can't be discounted: Five years ago, he convinced a panel in San Antonio that former congressman Albert Bustamante was guilty of racketeering and influence-peddling charges.
"You won't find many trial lawyers with the Justice Department any better than he is," says San Antonio lawyer A.L. Herndon, who should know. He represented Bustamante.
Also sitting at the government table is FBI special agent Ron Stern, the agent who conceived the sting and directed its team.
The Hotel Six sting began with the end of another high-profile case. In 1990, Stern led the team that burst in on the D.C. hotel room of a drug-using Mayor Marion Barry. Immediately after Barry was convicted of crack possession, Stern and his family left D.C. for Houston.
Because of his role in the Barry bust, Stern has come under attack as part of an FBI attempt to target minority leaders across the country. His wife, Julie, a Justice Department lawyer who tried civil-rights cases in D.C., says the common denominator in his investigations is corrupt officials, not minorities.
"Ron has investigated public corruption in every city we've been in," says Julie Stern. "In Washington, the power structure happened to be black. In Houston, the allegations involved Ben Reyes, who happened to be Hispanic. I've prosecuted cross-burners and racists, and the idea of racism is repugnant to me and Ron."
Once settled in Houston, Stern began surveying the turf for his stock in trade, political corruption. It wasn't long before Councilman Ben Reyes came to his attention. Reyes had been prosecuted before by the Harris County District Attorney for taking illegal corporate contributions, and his celebrated personal appropriation of a magnolia tree from a vacant home he had helped bulldoze as part of a neighborhood revitalization campaign. The investigation sputtered and Reyes pled out on misdemeanor campaign violations and kept his seat on City Council.
In April '95, Hispanic activist Berta Flores contacted Stern and relayed a rumor that Reyes had been paid cash by former state representative Roman Martinez in exchange for his assistance in getting Martinez city cab and airport food concessions. Those concessions had been awarded in the mid-'80s; by 1995, Martinez had sold his interests in both operations and had joined the city payroll as a council aide to Reyes.
In his testimony Friday, Stern did not mention Flores by name, but recounted that the confidential informant who contacted him in April 1995 told him that it was known in Houston's Hispanic community that, if you wanted to do business with the city, you had to pay a cash kickback to Reyes for his assistance.