Take the Cash and Talk That Trash

The hotel six sting hits the little screen

At a meeting with the agents in October, Torres waved a copy of the Houston Chronicle containing a front-page article on a reported FBI investigation of the Lanier administration for irregularities in the awarding of a delinquent parking ticket collection contract. Ben Reyes must be protected from this type of thing, Torres warned the undercover agents.

Torres is in no position to do any protecting now. He's listed as a cooperating witness for the government -- and thus, against Ben Reyes.

The bribery phase of the sting played out in two phases. In the first, Reyes allegedly took the lead in trying to bribe the councilmembers. Then, in spring 1996, came the second phase: After Reyes became suspicious of the federal agents and began trying to distance himself, Betti Maldonado became the contact person with councilmembers.

That first phase kicked into gear on December 1, 1995, when Molineiro gave Reyes a leather satchel containing $50,000 in $50 bills. Reyes admits taking the cash, but attorney Ramsey claims it was not a bribe but the seed capital for a joint venture between the councilman and the Cayman Group. (Even by that reasoning, Reyes's acceptance of the money would be ethically questionable, since it would go to purchase distressed city properties being sold under a program Reyes had helped craft as a councilman.) The feds will counter that defense with a tape of Reyes acknowledging later to Bob Dogium, the FBI agent using the alias Raul Correa, that the $50,000 was to buy his support for the hotel proposal rather than city property.

Shortly after Reyes gave his "buy some leaders" talk on January 8, 1996, the first round of alleged bribes of Council officials took place. Just two days later, the feds claim Reyes met with his successor on Council, Castillo, and Molineiro at an unspecified restaurant. According to the affidavit, the operative witnessed Reyes handing Castillo an envelope wrapped in a magazine. "Ben Reyes later told [Montero] that the envelope contained $3,000 for Castillo."

The following day, Montero and Reyes dined with Councilman Michael Yarbrough at Carrabba's on Kirby, where Reyes allegedly passed $1,500 in cash to Yarbrough in the men's bathroom.

Three days after that, Reyes allegedly repeated the maneuver with John Peavy, delivering an envelope with $2,500 to the councilman in the urinal of the restaurant inside the Wyndham Warwick Hotel. "FBI Special Agent Jim Trimbach followed Peavy and Ben Reyes into the bathroom," states the document. "Peavy and Ben Reyes remained in the bathroom until they were alone." Reyes later told the agents he had given Peavy $2,500.

According to these allegations, with those three officials, at least, Reyes had meticulously stuck to the budget he outlined on the board in Montero's office.

According to Reyes attorney Ramsey, the bribery scenario outlined above never happened. Ramsey told jurors in his opening statement that Reyes had in fact never given the councilmen the money, but rather had kept it for himself. Since Reyes was no longer a city councilman, his action was not a crime, but rather a simple rip-off of the Cayman Group operatives.

"It's poetic justice," declared Ramsey. "The scammers got scammed."
But there's a potential problem with that defense: Federal agents claim that, in taped conversations, councilmembers themselves independently confirmed that they'd received cash from Reyes. Whether those tapes are convincing will be left for the jury to decide.

The second phase of the sting began late in April '96, after Reyes had become suspicious of the Cayman Group agents and relocated from the FBI-rented offices at the Phoenician complex back to his own home in east Houston. He'd wised up to the operation when the agents began pressing him to revisit Peavy, Yarbrough and Castillo and get them to agree to inserting new language in the downtown hotel proposal. He apparently alerted Peavy and Castillo that the agents were bogus.

Anxious to get more incriminating evidence before the sting became public, the operatives began pressing Betti Maldonado to take over the role of delivering cash to the officials. Maldonado made several such presentations, but quickly became alarmed by the agents' blunt demands. When she balked, the agents revealed their identities and pressured her to cooperate. For a week, Maldonado did so -- then she sought advice from Port Commission Chairman Ned Holmes and Mayor Bob Lanier. She soon retained Dick DeGuerin to represent her, and on the afternoon of May 9 held a news conference to denounce the FBI for a racially motivated operation.

Anticipating Maldonado's move, FBI agents had already fanned across the city the same day to interview City Council members, collecting one last round of statements in an attempt to incriminate the officials who had accepted cash from the Cayman Group. The sting was over, but the legal maneuvering was just getting started.

As with every operation where cops tempt citizens to do wrong, there is the question whether agents snared a netful of civic sinners, or led astray a flock of civic saints. Dick DeGuerin claims Betti Maldonado is the quintessential example of an innocent forced to commit crimes.

"This case is about treachery," Dick DeGuerin told the jury -- the treachery of a few government agents who intimidated and blackmailed Maldonado into actions she would never have considered on her own.

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