In Their Own Words

Judging by the idle chatter of Hotel Six politicos, the moral barometer at City Hall is in free fall

The young African-American woman representing the Houston Police Department tentatively stepped forward in the Hotel Six bribery-conspiracy trial to face federal Judge David Hittner. Assistant City Attorney Sandra Robinson had come to the tiny courtroom on the eighth floor of the Federal Building to request that the judge kill a defense subpoena to make the HPD produce its records on the employment of a narcotics informant, Julio Molineiro, who is also a key undercover agent for the FBI testifying against the six City Hall insiders caught in the federal sting.

"It is fundamentally unfair and morally wrong," intoned Robinson, "to use his services and then throw him to the wolves."

Hittner cocked his head quizzically and offered a dry rejoinder to Robinson's earnestness. "You haven't been around here?" asked the judge, with just the hint of a mischievous smile. A ripple of appreciative laughter ran through the courtroom.

To Hittner and everyone else who has been immersed in more than two weeks of virtually nonstop audio- and videotapes filled with obscenity, cynicism and backstabbing, Robinson's words must have seemed primly Victorian. It was as if she had stepped out of a time machine from a world where virtues like loyalty and public trust are treasured, and landed in a cold-blooded future where moral values are in free fall and friends are best used like toilet paper and disposed of in similar fashion.

Forget those dry indictments outlining the allegations of bribery and conspiracy against current councilmembers John Castillo and Michael Yarbrough, former councilmen Ben Reyes and John Peavy, former port commissioner Betti Maldonado and lobbyist and former Reyes aide Ross Allyn. The real public wake-up call in this proceeding, delivered via the voices of the officials themselves, concerns the plummeting ethical standards prevailing in some circles at City Hall. By the measure of the tapes, the morality well on Bagby Street is nearly bone dry.

No one expects much of politicians these days, in an era where the public assumes a president is lying under oath about his sexual escapades, but is still willing to give him commanding approval ratings for his performance in office. But even with drastically reduced expectations, Hotel Six devotees are discovering that with some of their elected and appointed officials, as with the limbo, there seems to be no limits to how low they can go.

FBI informant Molineiro drove toward the Carrabba's on Kirby to meet a lunch guest, Councilman Michael Yarbrough. On the passenger side of the vehicle sat former councilman Ben Reyes, just beginning his new life as a private citizen.

Reyes rehearsed with the informant the planned maneuver to pass Yarbrough cash in exchange for his help in leading the forces on Council supporting Wayne Duddlesten's downtown convention center hotel project.

"I'm going to invite him to the bathroom," explained Reyes, who began rummaging through a briefcase in the back seat and fished out an envelope. "Is this the one, daddy?" Reyes asked.

"Yeah," replied Molineiro. "There are 1,500 in there. You take it. That will be all right?"

It was January 12, 1996, a week after the term-limited Reyes had left City Council, and six months since he had been contacted by the undercover agent, who was pretending to be a South American businessman fronting a company seeking City Hall contracts. Much had transpired since that date, the most notable event being Reyes's acceptance of a satchel containing $50,000 in cash from Molineiro at a westside apartment rented by the FBI as part of its public-corruption sting targeting Reyes.

The two men entered Carrabba's, a favorite hangout of Reyes, and settled at a table. Within minutes, Yarbrough arrived for his appointment.

After chatting with Molineiro about their mutual admiration for the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, Yarbrough got to the point. "I need a job, man," said the councilman, seeming to forget momentarily that he had been elected by the citizens of District B to serve them for a salary of $42,800 a year. Perhaps not full-time pay by some people's standards, but not exactly small change, either.

"We got it," replied Reyes to Yarbrough's verbal employment application. "You need a job, we need a leader. And, uh, in just a while we go in the bathroom."

Without missing a beat, Yarbrough answered, "okay." Since Molineiro did not accompany the pair to the urinal, his tape sheds no light on the burning etiquette question: Should men wash and dry their hands after exchanging cash in a public restroom?

Reyes's lunch conversation with the councilman proved far more interesting, and revealing of the ethical mindset of the pair, than the boring details of passing cash. Yarbrough, with his eye on the future, inquired about the chances that the term-limits law that had just knocked Reyes off City Council might be rescinded.

"I don't think so, daddy," explained Reyes, who allowed that the three-term limit was "stupid" because it had strengthened the hand of "the big-money guys and the damn bureaucrats." Yarbrough observed that it was hard for a politician to get to know benefactors when time in office is so limited. "You say, shit, man. Damn! We just got to the point where we started liking each other."

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