By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Last month, FBI informant Julio Molineiro learned the hard lesson that when you take the stand as a major witness in a six-ring federal bribery-conspiracy circus, cross-examination is likely to bring out all your best-buried little secrets. In Julio's case, they just happened to be tax evasion, drug use, prior theft convictions and conduct unbecoming even a snitch.
Now, as the remaining defendants in the marathon trial testify one by one in their own defense, the spotlight on their private lives is proving equally revealing. In the case of former councilman Ben Reyes, it involved an admission that he had long falsely claimed to be a veteran wounded in action. More on that later.
Councilman John Castillo's tax returns revealed he had tripled his income since taking over the District 1 seat in 1995 and had failed to report as taxable income payments from his mentor Ben Reyes's congressional campaign and cash he admitted Reyes had slipped him at the Montrose eatery Ruggles. Then there was the little matter of spending $400 he had known was an illegal contribution to win a political dance crown as Rey Feo [King Ugly].
But compared to what followed when his Council colleague and codefendant Michael Yarbrough testified, Castillo came off looking like Mr. Solid Citizen. The portrait that emerged from Yarbrough's interrogation was of a public official making $42,800 a year who has no bank account, pays his bills with money orders purchased at a post office and tends to simply collect cash handouts from business people and groups like so much string to be stuffed in his pockets. Yarbrough admitted he withdrew $12,000 for his campaign account prior to the 1995 elections and spent it without keeping any receipts to document the lucky recipients.
Under such circumstances, who wouldn't be tempted to keep a little of that loose green stuff for personal use? Not me, declared Yarbrough, who claimed he had actually spent part of a $1,500 videotaped cash payment from undercover agents to buy baskets for senior citizens. Without keeping receipts in that case, either.
Yarbrough had been present at Carrabba's restaurant when Reyes, in a profanity-laced conversation, described how he had forced a contractor to give him a payoff in exchange for help in getting a city contract approved. Yarbrough is accused of accompanying Reyes into the restaurant bathroom and accepting a packet of cash.
To explain his taped admission to agents that he received $1,500 from Reyes, Yarbrough reported an exchange of money never mentioned before. According to Yarbrough, when he confirmed the payment on-camera, he had really meant money Reyes legally collected at a fundraiser two months previously. According to Yarbrough, Reyes had initially given him a packet of checks, and then passed him an envelope of cash at a wrecker industry meeting that also contained contributions from that earlier fundraiser. It was that legal cash that Yarbrough said he was confirming when taped by the FBI.
When Yarbrough was interviewed by federal agents at his home on May 9, 1996, as the sting investigation went public, he flatly denied receiving cash from Reyes and never mentioned the alleged cash transfer at the wrecker meeting.
After grilling Yarbrough on his failure to file campaign reports for the period of late 1995 and early 1996 encompassed by the FBI sting, prosecutor Mike Attanasio snapped a trap on the apparently unsuspecting councilman. After getting Yarbrough to testify that he was not above the laws that his constituents had to follow, Attanasio asked, "Did you file income-tax returns for 1994, the year you began serving on City Council?" Before Yarbrough's attorney, Mike DeGeurin, could object, Yarbrough admitted he had not filed returns for that year or the next two.
The tax admissions provoked a few gasps around the courtroom. During a break in the proceedings, DeGeurin provided a visual commentary on the testimony by dragging hard on a cigarette, sticking his fingers in his ears and then blowing the cancer stick several feet through the air. DeGeurin later moved for a mistrial on the grounds the government had not disclosed the tax information on Yarbrough as part of routine pretrial discovery.
"What's really happened here is that Mr. DeGeurin didn't know it," replied Attanasio smoothly. "But that's not the government's concern." Judge Hittner agreed, and denied the mistrial motion.
Later, the councilman tried to recover by declaring that since tax deductions were withheld from his paychecks by the city, the government actually owed him money.
The slam dunk on Mike DeGeurin angered his brother, Dick DeGuerin, Betti Maldonado's attorney. "My brother's too nice to object," fumed Dick DeGuerin in open court during another exchange between prosecution and defense. "I'm not going to let [Attanasio] do that to me."
Not content to leave it at that, Dick DeGuerin then vented to a Channel 26 reporter, Sue Speck, when she asked whether he would put Maldonado on the stand after the carnage inflicted on Castillo and Yarbrough. "I hate to turn her over to those bastards," snapped the lawyer, "but I might have to."
When prosecutors protested the following day, Judge Hittner upbraided Dick DeGuerin out of the jury's presence for an "outrageous" comment, and said he would penalize the lawyer in the future in a way that would not affect the trial. Dick DeGuerin in turn issued a tepid apology in which he denied intending to insult anyone's parentage.