Sancho Panza Takes the Stand

Will John Castillo ever escape Ben Reyes's shadow?

But in early 1996, Castillo was still accepting the scraps from Reyes's table. He testified that he took a wad of 15 hundred-dollar bills from Reyes at the bar, ostensibly the partial payment for campaign work done in Reyes's unsuccessful 1994 congressional run against incumbent Gene Green.

The claim is crucial to Castillo's defense. He is charged with taking two bribes, one from Reyes at Ruggles and another from Betti Maldonado at the Hyatt Regency coffee shop in April of the same year. In the first incident, Castillo denied he had met with Reyes at the Montrose eatery to discuss business, saying the meeting was simply to return Ben's income-tax form that had mistakenly been mailed to the Council office now occupied by Castillo.

Attanasio punched a big hole in that claim by producing Reyes's 1996 tax return, which shows a personalized label that indicates it was mailed to Reyes's home at 945 Lathrop rather than to his City Council office, as Castillo insisted. Later, he also produced Castillo's answers to questions from two FBI agents, in which the councilman contradicted his testimony by recounting that he had agreed to meet Reyes at Ruggles to discuss a city of Houston wastewater-program contract to recruit minority contractors. That explanation makes a lot more sense, because Ben and girlfriend Rosalie Brockman had been planning to go into such a venture along with Betti Maldonado.

Castillo testified that Ben kept him waiting nearly 45 minutes, and finally showed up at Ruggles with Brockman in tow. According to Castillo, Reyes chatted with him at the bar, and unexpectedly produced a roll containing $1,500 that he handed to him. While the feds claim that the money was a payoff for assistance to the FBI's sham company the Cayman Group, Castillo countered that it was actually a legitimate repayment of that old campaign debt. According to him, Reyes took his tax form and told him, "You know, you've helped me in my campaigns. I know I owe you ... I want to pay you what I owe you."

Consultant Marc Campos, who also worked for Reyes in the same congressional campaign and claims he was never completely paid off, is amused by the defense that Reyes had just decided out of the blue to make good on a past debt to Castillo.

"Too bad that one was never recorded," chuckles Campos of the lack of a videotape substantiating Castillo's account. "If it had been, for the first time in history we'd have had evidence that Ben Reyes actually paid back a debt."

Castillo did receive two payments from that campaign totaling $2,500 and listed as "fees" in Reyes's campaign reports. Why was it, Attanasio asked Castillo, that that money was not reported on his tax returns for that year? When Castillo explained that it was listed, the prosecutor drew the admission that the councilman had listed the money as "expenses" rather than "income."

"John didn't put out any money in that campaign," says Campos, who claims he spent his own cash for Spanish-language radio advertisements while Castillo put out little, if any, of his own money in the campaign.

In any case, Castillo admitted he used the Reyes money for personal expenses, and just marked it up to unexpected good fortune.

"He was doing well, and when Ben is doing well, he pays his bills," declared Castillo, provoking a titter from the defense table and the courtroom audience. Oddly, even Reyes seemed to be amused.

Castillo also had the unenviable task of explaining to the jury why he had taken an envelope from Betti Maldonado at the Hyatt on April 29, 1996, and not returned it promptly once he discovered that it contained $3,000. Under the guidance of lawyer Bennett, the councilman insisted he had simply gotten sidetracked by an exceptionally busy two weeks, and carried around the cash in a leather file folder during that time.

During that time, Castillo was also collecting money to contribute to that LULAC fundraiser, he testified, and had accumulated about $1,400. Since he knew it would take more than that to win the Rey Feo contest, explained Castillo, he decided to take $400 out of the stash Betti had given him to bolster the total to $1,800.

Castillo did not replace the money taken for the Rey Feo contest, and so had only $2,600 in his leather file folder when FBI agents Jim Trimbach and Kenny Kemp dropped by his house unannounced on the morning of May 9, 1996. They and more than a dozen other agents fanned out across the city at the same time to interview Houston City Council members.

In his taped interview with the agents, Castillo provided none of the exculpatory explanations he would later give jurors for the money he accepted from Maldonado and Reyes.

"Have you received money or anything of value from an employee or representative of the Cayman Group?" asked Trimbach as the trio sat in Castillo's living room.

"Not personally, no. But campaign, yes," answered the councilman. After discussing the two checks that had been previously contributed by the undercover agents and listed as campaign reports, he denied receiving anything else of personal value. Kemp then asked Castillo, "Have you received any money or anything of value from Mr. Ben Reyes?"

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