By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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By Sean Pendergast
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By Jeff Balke
The night before the December 1995 runoff election for the District D position on Houston City Council, Jew Don Boney was on the verge of finally winning elected office.
The race against opponent Saundra Chase Gray was close, however, and only hours before ballots were cast, Boney --who had lost several previous political campaigns -- probably should have been courting voters in Montrose, Sunnyside, the Third Ward and the other neighborhoods in the district.
Instead, the candidate was in Denver Harbor, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood on the eastside, trolling for campaign contributions among the friends and associates of Ben Reyes, whose long political career, including eight terms on City Council, would end later that month. Until then, the opportunistic instincts that had earned Reyes a reputation as ethically challenged were working on one last inside play: a piece of the $150 million contract to build a hotel next to the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Toward that end, Reyes introduced Boney to Carlos Montero, a Latin American businessman representing an investment outfit called the Cayman Group. A week before, Montero had allegedly paid Reyes $50,000 in cash to secure the Cayman Group's interest in the hotel development project being proposed by Wayne Duddlesten. Reyes had reportedly assured Montero that with the right number of cash incentives, he could convince a majority of councilmembers to vote for Duddlesten's proposal. Reyes introduced Boney to Montero as someone who, should he be elected to City Council, could be a key vote on the hotel deal.
Boney did, in fact, beat Gray to replace the term-limited Al Calloway as District D councilman. To some, it was an upset: At the time, Boney was a staunch antiestablishmentarian, an outsider whose chief constituency was the city's poor, particularly those African-Americans who were rarely heard over the clamor of Houston's capitalist vigor. An ordained minister and peace activist, Boney was committed to various leftist causes. His manner was characterized by a militant severity that did not invite false alliances.
The long-awaited affirmation by voters seemed to humble Boney, who attributed his victory to "the vision of new politics" promised by his campaign. He thanked God, his family and his supporters, and vowed to be "the conscience at City Hall."
Meanwhile, as contents of a surveillance tape would ultimately reveal, Reyes had arranged another meeting with Montero, apparently to discuss how Boney might be persuaded to vote for the Duddlesten hotel proposal.
"I'm going to tell him, 'Look, [we've] got to have your help,' " Reyes told Montero. " 'I'm going to give $1,000, so you can buy a suit, some clothes -- not for the campaign. No, this is ... to take care of yourself.' It'll make him feel good."
"Good idea," Montero replied.
On December 21, 1995, less than two weeks before he would be sworn into office, Boney met Reyes for breakfast. According to an affidavit filed in federal court by an FBI special agent, the councilman-elect accepted from Reyes an envelope that contained $5,000 in cash. Also present at the meeting was Carlos Montero, who, as it turned out, is not a Latin American businessman with the Cayman Group but an undercover FBI operative whose real name is Julio Molineiro.
Molineiro was a central figure in Operation Parallax, an FBI sting operation that led to the indictment of six City Hall insiders: Ben Reyes, councilmembers John Castillo and Michael Yarbrough, former councilman John Peavy, former port commissioner Betti Maldonado and lobbyist Ross Allyn.
The trial of the so-called Hotel Six is currently under way in U.S. District Court. All are accused of bribery and conspiracy in an attempt to secure the convention-center hotel contract for Duddlesten and the fictitious Cayman Group. If convicted, they could get jail terms ranging from 15 to 50 years and fines ranging from $500,000 to $1.5 million.
No such burden weighs heavy on the mind of Jew Don Boney. Now in his second term as the District D representative, Boney was never indicted for his alleged involvement in the bribery scandal. Last year, he vehemently denied that Reyes even offered him the money, though he did acknowledge having "some discussions" with Montero and another undercover FBI agent who participated in the covert operation.
"If there was anything to prove that I took any money from anybody," Boney told the Press, "I certainly would have been indicted."
However, audio tapes made by a federal undercover agent have Reyes claiming to have given Boney the $5,000. Investigatory sources say Boney walked away with the money. But the case against the councilman was never pursued because, as one source put it, "he didn't come back to the table" -- meaning that, unlike those indicted, Boney never incriminated himself in a way that prosecutors felt would hold up in court. And, of course, Boney's campaign-finance reports do not show a $5,000 cash contribution, which would be illegal under state law.
"We were going back to these people to confirm that they got [the money] on tape, because we knew we were going to be faced with just Ben saying he gave it to them," says one source, suggesting that Reyes's credibility with a jury might be weak. "Jew Don is pretty slick. We didn't get back to him to confirm it, so we just let it go. Jew Don got $5,000 and never reported it -- oh yeah."