Sancho Panza Takes the Stand

Will John Castillo ever escape Ben Reyes's shadow?

Prosecutor Mike Attanasio conducted his cross-examination of Hotel Five defendant John E. Castillo last week like a speed chess player, each of his questions as short and dramatic as the slap of a player's hand on a timer.

The graying, 58-year-old councilman had taken the enormously risky gambit of testifying in his own defense. The decision gave the baby-faced prosecutor the unexpected opportunity to match his endgame skills against those of Castillo, who visibly sagged and occasionally rubbed his bagged eyes as the interrogation proceeded.

Up to that point, the government attorney had mostly played the role of tape jockey, prepping witnesses who then introduced and described FBI audio- and videotapes of the defendants in a myriad of allegedly compromising conversations and scenes. That task bore more resemblance to the role of a movie director preparing his final cut for screening than to that of a trial lawyer slicing and dicing opposing witnesses.

Castillo's decision to testify and expose himself to counterattack was not popular with the other defense team lawyers. By taking the stand, he effectively put pressure on Councilman Mike Yarbrough, former councilmen Ben Reyes and John Peavy and former port commissioner Betti Maldonado to do the same. The former sixth defendant in the bribery-conspiracy trial won't have to make that decision, since Judge David Hittner last week ordered a directed acquittal for lobbyist Ross Allyn.

"We'll see how Castillo does," says one defense team member of the Castillo decision. Castillo did well enough under attorney Robert Bennett's solicitous questioning, but his explanations sounded more improbable under Attanasio's skeptical and at times sarcastic cross-examination.

Had Castillo really spent $400 of an alleged $3,000 payoff just to win the title of Rey Feo [King Ugly] at a League of Latin American Citizens scholarship fundraiser? Was it really believable that he had intended to return the cash unspent after he held it for ten days without telling anyone, including a pair of FBI agents who showed up to interrogate him the morning the sting became public?

And when Castillo repeatedly answered "yes" when asked if he had accepted a personal cash payment from Reyes during surreptitiously taped interviews, was he really just employing a Spanish-language trait of keeping a conversation rolling without indicating agreement? And after claiming he "felt unclean" about being offered a bribe from FBI agent Bob Dogium, why did Castillo agree to another meeting with the Cayman Group, where money was actually slipped to him?

Unfortunately for the defense, Castillo's answers seemed blank and off the point and sometimes clashed with transcripts of taped conversations.

Attanasio also got a little help from Judge David Hittner, who likes to jump in and occasionally ask his own questions. After Castillo admitted he did take note of who gave large contributions to his campaign, he agreed that big money buys a little more attention from an official. "You give them access, Judge, like everybody else," Castillo explained of large contributors. "They just have more complicated problems." When Maldonado attorney Dick DeGuerin sought to solicit a testimonial from Castillo for his client, Judge Hittner asked in semi-astonishment: "You want to use him as a character witness?"

Castillo denied he was part of a conspiracy directed by former councilman Ben Reyes to help a group of Latin American investors bribe their way into developer Wayne Duddlesten's downtown hotel contract. If that were the case, said Attanasio, why did Castillo stand compliantly at Reyes's side during a get-together at the bar at Ruggles in '96 while his former boss told an undercover agent, "I asked John to please help us ... please, we need his help."

In six of the most revealing words yet uttered in the trial, Castillo answered quickly, carelessly and without reflection: "You don't hardly correct Ben Reyes."

For a prosecution that has contended from the beginning that Reyes orchestrated the sting and selected its targets, the statement was a revealing court moment of the sort that usually only happens in Perry Mason reruns. It was also a quick explanation of why Castillo, Ben's longtime Sancho Panza who managed all 11 of his campaigns for public office, from the state house to Congress, still stands in Reyes's shadow, this time in a federal courtroom.

When one person serves another for so long, even when power relationships change, the obsequious behavior often lingers. Castillo, who holds degrees in physics and mathematics, has been an acolyte of Reyes's for most of his political life, and even when he had at long last superseded his boss as District 1 city councilman, he could not become his own man. He could not hardly correct Ben Reyes.

Thus did newly minted Councilman Castillo find himself at Ruggles January 10, 1996, still doing Reyes's bidding a week after stepping into Ben's shoes at City Council.

Castillo's income stream has improved markedly since he won the Council seat. His 1994 tax filings showed him with a personal income of only $27,066. In 1995, the year in which he won his Council seat but had not yet begun serving in the $49,500 position, his income was up to $52,000. After his first full year in office, it had risen to $86,000. Including Castillo's wife Mary Lydia's income as a Metro Transit Authority small-business development administrator, the Castillos brought in a healthy $138, 857 last year.

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