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.

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?"

"Oh well, he helped me in my campaign," answered Castillo, who noted that Reyes may have spent about $320 on postage stamps in that effort. Again, Castillo denied receiving anything else of value from Reyes.

The same day as the FBI interview, Castillo contacted an old friend, attorney Frumencio Reyes, went to his office, and turned over $2,600 to the lawyer, representing it as the remaining, untouched cash from the envelope given him by Maldonado. Because Castillo had told no one else he had received the money in the first place, the money then remained in Frumencio's safe until he told his new lawyers, Max Secrest and Bennett, about its location.

As it turned out, upon examination, none of the serial numbers from that cash matched the original money given to Castillo at the Hyatt. The councilman blamed the discrepancy on his former lawyer, implying he spent the original bills in the nearly two-year interval the money remained in his safe.

The Hotel Five jury will decide in three weeks or so whether Castillo's convoluted rationale for taking $4,500 from Ben Reyes and Betti Maldonado constitutes reasonable doubt as to his intentions. But if his fellow defendants follow him to the stand with equally tortured explanations, the testimony could provide the backbone for a new political-science text: "50 Ways for a Public Official to Take Cash and Justify It."

E-mail Tim Fleck at tim_fleck@houstonpress.com.

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