Scenes from a Sting

How not to have a midlife crisis

Tony Reyes lingered at the Galleria-area Hunan's Restaurant after a business lunch he had with his brother, Councilman Ben Reyes, Ben's son Albert, and Rosalie Brockman, the councilman's girlfriend. It was the afternoon of November 3, 1995, less than two months before term limits would force Ben Reyes to give up his seat after 16 years and eight municipal campaigns.

Also at the table that day was FBI informant Julio Molineiro, using the alias Carlos Montero. Molineiro was pretending to be a South American businessman heading a sham investment company called the Cayman Group. As the point man in an FBI public-corruption sting targeting Reyes, the informant was searching for the councilman's weak points. He was also wearing a body mike that, unbeknownst to the group, was picking up every word.

Tony and Molineiro stayed on at the restaurant for a heart-to-heart after the others left. Tony was upset with Ben, and he picked the worst possible confidant before whom to unfurl the family's dirty laundry.

After an introductory meeting four months earlier, Councilman Reyes had sent Molineiro to work with Tony and another brother, Greg, on a plan to help the Cayman Group win a role in developer Wayne Duddlesten's downtown convention-center hotel project. At first it was to be as builder and operator of the hotel's parking garage, described by Ben as "a fucking cash cow."

But Ben's vision had expanded, and now he was aiming at forcing Duddlesten to give the Cayman Group -- and Reyes as a silent partner -- an equity ownership in the hotel. He had become impatient with delays in securing the Cayman Group's support -- and cash -- and now was taking direct control of the scheme before he left City Council. The night before the Hunan's lunch, he had bluntly warned Tony to get out of the way. Henceforth, the Cayman Group investors were to deal with Ben directly.

Tony Reyes was angry, and alarmed. If Ben were linked to the effort while he was still voting on Council, his brother knew they all could be in legal trouble.

"My brother is not using his damn head, and he doesn't listen, which is the worst thing," Tony confided to Molineiro. "I don't know why all of a sudden he has changed in the last two weeks, [but] he has changed a lot.... He's getting too desperate. That's what scares me, shit!"

While Tony Reyes had no idea that Molineiro was actually the family's worst nightmare, he sensed that something was wrong. "He really shouldn't have had that talk with you with everybody here," Tony told Molineiro after the lunch, and then added, "there are many people right now who would like to take a shot at him to knock him down, knock him down good."

Tony told Molineiro he had decided to get out of the deal completely. Tony and Greg had participated in many other ventures capitalizing on city contracts their brother had provided via his influence on Council. They were well versed in the difference between a shady but legal enterprise and an illegal one, because they had almost been ensnared in previous law-enforcement probes of several of those deals.

The smell emanating from the Cayman Group was too strong even for Tony, a veteran at skirting the line. Trying to make Molineiro understand his decision to defect, Tony pleaded: "I can't get in trouble. I have a family and everything."

Tony complained that Ben was no businessman, and tended to run enterprises like they were political campaigns. Tony even let the agent in on an old Reyes family secret, one that had become an unconfirmed political legend in Houston over the years.

In the mid-'70s, Ben had been given as a political payoff a business, Jones Lumber, that had once been part of the financial empire owned by the Houston Endowment foundation, which also operated the Houston Chronicle. When Reyes took over the premises for a minimal purchase price, he found the business freshly stocked with a rich inventory of lumber that was his for free.

"They gave him a business, as a gift, and he let it go to hell, because he was a politician," Reyes told Molineiro. Of course, Tony continued, his brother was also accused of using the lumberyard to get the business of contractors whom he helped get city business.

"Shit," exclaimed Tony, "we have all learned a lot with regards to that."

Perhaps one Reyes had absorbed the lesson that public office and city contracts are an explosive mix. But another Reyes, deep in the morass of personal and financial turmoil, had either never learned it or had simply forgotten.

If the first two weeks of the Hotel Six City Hall bribery-conspiracy trial have proved nothing else, the seemingly endless stream of undercover audio and video tapes has established Ben Reyes and his clan as the nineties' most politically dysfunctional family in Houston.

Reyes is at the center of the federal prosecutors' case against him and five other City Hall insiders, including two current councilmembers: Reyes's successor, John Castillo, and Michael Yarbrough. Also indicted are former councilman John Peavy, former port commissioner Betti Maldonado and former Reyes aide and lobbyist Ross Allyn. Reyes is accused of orchestrating the alleged bribery of the three councilmembers, while Maldonado and Allyn are charged with helping him carry out the scheme.

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