Mysteries of Hotel Six

The government's case nears an end, but the questions continue

As the government ties the final ribbons on its case against the Hotel Six this week, some nagging questions have survived the playing of the FBI's hottest audio- and videotapes.

How did former councilman Ben Reyes really spend the $50,000 he gratefully accepted from an FBI undercover agent at a westside apartment two and a half years ago? His lawyer claims Reyes used the money to buy distressed city properties at auction as part of a joint venture with government agents, but some expensive new wheels seem to have come Ben's way as well.

Why have the Hotel Six prosecutors seemingly ignored a packet purportedly containing $3,000 that Councilman John Castillo accepted from lobbyist Betti Maldonado in a hotel coffee shop and later gave to his former attorney for safekeeping after the federal sting operation went public? The answer involves a clever endgame whose results could determine whether Castillo escapes conviction.

Did the government indict hapless lobbyist Ross Allyn in a bizarre exercise of reverse affirmative action, just to get an Anglo face among two blacks and three Hispanics at the defense table? Allyn, who has played Reyes's straight man for nearly a decade, spent most of his court tape time boring the FBI's bogus Latin American businessmen with advice on how to do things legally. Allyn's future looks bright, if he can just get past the testimony of a high-powered federal witness.

And finally, there's the Jeopardy Daily Double question: At the end of the day, who among the six defendants gets to check out of Hotel Six and go home, and who gets stuck with an involuntary, extended vacation at a Club Fed? Only the Hotel Six jury panel can answer that last question decisively, but read on for our educated guesses.

Judging by one poll, the government began its bribery-conspiracy case against the six City Hall insiders in a highly favorable public-opinion environment. A survey of the developing mayor's race conducted by Rice political scientist Bob Stein and his University of Houston counterpart Richard Murray last fall posed the question to voters: "Some say minority political leaders were singled out by the FBI sting that produced the indictment. Others say that the individuals charged brought the trouble on themselves by their conduct. Which best reflects your opinion?"

Only 13 percent of respondents believed that the sting was racially motivated, while a whopping 62.5 percent thought the officials had brought it upon themselves.

The Spanish-language daily El Dia announced results of its own poll of readers last week. While the paper chose to highlight the relatively small percentage of those who thought Councilman Castillo and Maldonado were guilty [10 and 16 percent, respectively], a surprising 28 percent of Hispanics surveyed thought all the defendants were guilty. And leading the pack at 30 percent was Ben Torres Reyes.

The government has contended from the beginning that its sting operation aimed to catch Reyes, and that he hatched the bribery conspiracy against councilmembers Castillo, Peavy and Michael Yarbrough, with the assistance of Maldonado and Allyn. Reyes is the linchpin of the prosecution. If the jury finds him innocent, everybody walks. Conversely, if Reyes alone is convicted, at least one government source contends the prosecution will consider it a victory.

Ben Reyes's attorney Mike Ramsey has the hardest job in the trial. He must convince jurors that when they saw an FBI video of his client walking away with a bag jammed with packets of $50 bills, they were not witnessing a crime. Ramsey contends the money was seed capital for a joint venture between Reyes and the Cayman Group to buy city property at auction. Never mind that FBI agent Bob Dogium and undercover informant Julio Molineiro repeatedly told Reyes on tape the money was paying for his help in winning them a share of the hotel project contract.

Harris County Appraisal District records indicate Reyes did purchase nine parcels of vacant land. Reyes's girlfriend, engineer Rosalie Ortega Brockman, also bought two vacant lots at the auction, while Reyes's son Albert received title to four such properties. Among them, the Reyes group paid close to the total cash amount provided by the FBI.

But during the same period, Ben also plunked down $12,000 at Park Place Motors in Southeast Houston for a used Range Rover, which is displayed in several FBI surveillance photos of the former councilman at different meetings. And he claimed he made a cash payment out of his own pocket to Councilman John Castillo at a meeting at Ruggles when informant Molineiro forgot to bring an envelope of money for that purpose.

Reyes's best moments at the trial so far involved a transcript the defense managed to reconstruct from FBI audiotapes of meetings between the councilman and government agents during a trip to Florida in September 1995, when the sting operation was just beginning. While the government claimed the tapes were inaudible, the defense transcripts indicate Reyes repeatedly stated he would not make a penny off the hotel deal, and was looking to future deals with the Cayman Group after he left City Council to earn a dividend. Informant Molineiro testified that Reyes was simply putting out a smoke screen because an Anglo FBI agent he didn't trust was present at the meetings.

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