In Their Own Words

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

"Fuck," exclaimed Dogium, and Maldonado continued, "they gave one councilmember 50 [grand.]" But it was not necessary to give everybody money, she continued. "I know what you can get away with, with who."

Backed into a corner by the taped admissions of their clients, the Hotel Six defense team is forced, like the legal stars defending O.J. Simpson, to attempt to turn the tables and put law enforcement on trial. The most obvious target is Molineiro, an informant with a not-so-distant past.

Demonized in opening arguments by Reyes attorney Mike Ramsey as "the creature," "a worm" and a "piece of work," Molineiro has thrived during more than a week on the stand. His broken-English "Chess sir" and "no sir," an enigmatic smile and considerable gifts as a role-player have served him well. The 39-year-old Chilean may not be the snitch-next-door, but he has at least come across as a human being, with a common-law wife and two children in Houston, and a wife and children he left behind in Chile a decade ago.

After the defense came up with DEA internal documents, Molineiro was forced to make a series of damaging admissions under cross-examination from Peavy attorney Dan Cogdell. The informant acknowledged that he had stolen $20,000 from a drug dealer while he was working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, lied to his controlling agents and then fled temporarily to Paraguay.

Molineiro had five previous convictions in South America for robbery and theft before he was hired by the DEA after he got out of prison to do undercover narcotics work. After the agency helped Molineiro come to Houston, he stole the money and fled to Paraguay in 1991. Inexplicably, he was allowed by U.S. authorities to return to Houston and was even awarded a $40,000 bonus by the DEA for his role in a subsequent narcotics case.

The informant claimed he never told prosecutors about the drug-money heist. The defense found out about it from sources in the DEA, and asked Judge Hittner to declare a mistrial based on the federal Brady statute requiring prosecutors to disclose all evidence to the defense before trial. Judge David Hittner denied the motion, but indicated he will consider declaring a mistrial later.

Under grilling by Peavy attorney Dan Cogdell, Molineiro also admitted he had received $127,000 in cash for salary and expenses from the DEA in 19901991, but did not begin paying U.S. taxes until 1993. He claimed that when he went to work as an informant for the Internal Revenue Service, an agent told him he would have to start filing tax returns. The informant drew laughter from a courtroom audience when he claimed he had not paid taxes until then because he didn't have a Social Security card, "and in my mind, if I don't have a Social Security number, I can't pay taxes."

Molineiro also confessed to using cocaine as an undercover agent in both South America and the U.S., but claimed it was part of his role-playing as a drug dealer. Cogdell produced the statement of a former DEA agent describing Molineiro as "a potential embarrassment to the DEA" and a self-admitted cocaine user who was "impossible to control."

Despite the admissions of theft, drug use and tax evasion, Molineiro remained unruffled and cheerful throughout the cross-examination, and at times seemed to be enjoying it. After Molineiro's undercover assignments as a drug dealer in life-threatening roles, facing the sharpest Houston defense attorneys probably seems like pretty tame stuff.

As his interrogation proceeded, the quick-witted informant began improvising his own jabs at the defendants. When Cogdell suggested that perhaps Ben Reyes had kept an envelope of cash rather than passing it to his client Peavy at the Warwick Hotel, Molineiro parried, "Are you suggesting that Mr. Reyes is a thief?"

"Yes, sir, that's exactly what I'm suggesting," Codgell responded, no doubt sending a chilly draft in Reyes's direction.

Other than the threat of a mistrial, the defense attacks on Molineiro have lacked the impact of the audio- and videotapes he helped produce. Even the informant's admitted thefts, drug use and tax evasion seemed inconsequential compared to the image of councilmembers accepting bags and envelopes of cash.

The bottom line is that no reasonable observer expects the moral and ethical standards for a narcotics informer plucked out of a South American prison to be comparable to those of City Council members or a port commissioner. The fact that they apparently are tells you just how wrong things have gone at Houston City Hall.

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