By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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"And, I got to go find somebody else," added Reyes.
"Find somebody else," parroted Yarbrough. "Shit! You know?"
The two then ruminated on the role of then-Public Works Director Jimmie Schindewolf, credited by Reyes with being more powerful than the mayor. "He'll run the whole fucking thing. So why does he need to be mayor?" At that point, Schindewolf was being mentioned as a possible candidate to run for Bob Lanier's office in 1997, but Reyes held out grimmer prospects.
"He's going to die, man," explained Gentle Ben. "He's done had two heart attacks.... He's got a bad heart."
(At last check, Schindewolf, who resigned as public works director last month, had completely recovered from heart bypass surgery and is headed for green pastures as an engineering consultant for the Houston Sports Authority.)
The tete-a-tete between Reyes and Yarbrough then turned into a veritable corruption pep rally, as Ben gave a "be like me" talk to the younger councilman. Reyes explained how, in his first, relatively innocent years on Council, he'd let himself be bought for a song by city contractors. One had asked Reyes to make sure he got a contract yielding $200,000 in profits.
"First, he tried to hoodwink my ass," Reyes regaled Yarbrough. "Giving me a little old bullshit, little old package." As Molineiro later testified, Reyes customarily referred to cash payoffs as "a package."
"I said 'no daddy, it don't work that way,' " Reyes told Yarbrough. " 'So you gotta do better than that.' "
"And he got right," chortled Reyes. "Them motherfuckers, if they can get away with a nickel, they'll give you a nickel."
Rather than the stunned silence you might expect from an elected official hearing ribald tales of payoffs, Yarbrough's response was as telling as Reyes's story. "Yeah," he exclaimed enthusiastically. "Yeah!"
Reyes made it clear it would take more than a nickel to buy him these days. "No, daddy, you got to have a quarter!" he exhorted Yarbrough, who chirped back, "Yeah." Reyes then put the capper on the conversation with, "Fuck that goddamn nickel shit."
Shortly thereafter, the two excused themselves and headed for the bathroom, where the transaction presumably involved something more substantial than rolls of nickels.
Betti Maldonado hurried into the office of the Cayman Group at the Phoenician complex on Bering Drive loaded down with takeout from Cafe Express. It was May 1, 1996, and Betti was a bit frazzled because things were not going quite as planned. An attempt to give Councilman John Peavy a packet of cash earlier that morning at the Hyatt Regency hotel coffee shop had fizzled when Peavy refused to take the envelope. Now she was going to dissect the disaster over lunch with Julio Molineiro, filmed by FBI video cameras.
Ben Reyes had allegedly passed money to Peavy four months earlier in the Warwick Hotel restaurant. After Reyes became wary of the federal operatives and had backed away, the agents had turned to Maldonado, then a port commissioner and a friend of Mayor Bob Lanier and his wife, Elyse, to take up the slack.
Betti had obliged, and had passed one envelope with cash to Councilman John Castillo during a meeting at the Hyatt Regency two days earlier. Then came her second, abortive try with Peavy.
Maldonado accepted the blame for Peavy's refusal to take the cash, explaining to Molineiro, "I have never, ever dealt with them that way. Never ... I've never gotten to that other level."
The statement provides defense ammunition for Maldonado's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, who contends that the FBI entrapped his client into doing illegal acts she would never have otherwise committed. Unfortunately, Maldonado also seems ready and willing on the tape to explore "that other level."
Part of the problem, Maldonado complained to the agent, was that she was being forced to give the councilmembers cash in the presence of Molineiro and FBI agent Bob Dogium, who was playing the part of Cayman Group president Marcos Correa. They should have more confidence in her, declared Maldonado, and be willing to give her $10,000 with the freedom to pick the time and place to pass it on to councilmembers.
Maldonado earlier explained to Molineiro who was willing to take cash. "With John [Castillo] ... I mean, John has already been in this forever. So it's no big deal. Michael is also more ... no big deal, and really, Peavy normally is no big deal."
Since the sting became public in May of 1996, Maldonado has accused the FBI of targeting the officials snared in the sting because of their race. Yet Maldonado herself provided an outline that excluded white councilmembers from consideration for payoffs.
While Maldonado emphasized she had not previously made cash payments to councilmembers, she was hardly a Pollyanna about how things work at City Hall.
In an earlier meeting with Molineiro and Dogium, Maldonado described the intense lobbying effort by the French wastewater giant PSG to close a deal to privatize the city's water plants. "They were giving out money like I have never seen before on Council," marveled Maldonado. "These guys are giving, I'm going to tell you [because] I have never seen this, 20 grand!"