Blowing Smoke at Hotel Six

If Betti was Dorothy, and the FBI was the Wizard, who was Toto?

The haze blanketing the city of Houston this month was thin stuff indeed compared to the smoke the Hotel Six jury has labored to cut through in its first days of deliberation. After nine weeks of testimony, the panel confronted two mirror universes presented by prosecutors and defense attorneys representing the remaining five City Hall insiders charged with bribery and conspiracy.

Before the jury even started weighing the fates of former councilmen Ben Reyes and John Peavy, current Councilmen Michael Yarbrough and John Castillo and former port commissioner Betti Maldonado, two quick developments seemed ominous for the defense.

A draw for the final 12 panelists from the 13-person pool eliminated a black woman juror whose body language had been interpreted by prosecutors as increasingly pro-defense. That set the final group at nine men and three women, including eight Anglos, two blacks and two Hispanics, still a diverse jury by federal standards. Then the jurors elected as foreman a besuited white male lobbyist who had seemed skeptical of defense arguments. And with that, the final examination of the evidence began.

One of the first queries from the jury to the judge boosted defense spirits. If Ben Reyes was entrapped by the government, asked the foreman, does that mean all the defendants were entrapped? Although the judge answered "No," the question indicated that the cornerstone of the government's case may be crumbling.

The only point where the universes of the prosecution and defense coincide is agreement in the person of former city councilman Ben Reyes, and the agreement that he took the money. FBI undercover agents filmed Reyes and his four codefendants taking or passing on cash supplied by two agents posing as the bogus Latin American businessmen of the Cayman Group. They were trolling for corrupt city officials under the pretense of buying their way into the downtown convention center hotel project in the worst way, with cash bribes.

But from there, each side has its own terminology for identical actions: What's a bribe in one universe is a campaign contribution in the other; an illegal payoff here becomes a legal loan there; a bribe in one place is the legal payback of an old debt in another; and a damning admission to one side is otherwise presented as a simple shuck and jive to con potential investors.

"You saw something pretty special in this trial," prosecutor Mike Attanasio told jurors at the beginning of his summation. "For the first time in a long time, you got to look behind the curtain. Greed, corruption and dishonesty. That's what you got to see, and it wasn't pretty."

The weight of empirical evidence -- some 1,400 tapes documenting 400 hours of conversation -- would seem to favor the government, once one accepts that the federal agents' words on the tapes are lies to facilitate a public-corruption probe of Reyes and his circle of political associates. Since Reyes's own words declare his intention to buy by bribe the votes and leadership of three councilmembers, his defense amounts to a mirror of the FBI sting.

According to Reyes, he only pretended to bribe officials in order to take the agents' money while keeping them in line as potential investors for the hotel, for which he had seemingly developed a manic attachment. In other words, for every lie the agents told him, Ben did them one better, and kept their money to boot.

Of course, every time Reyes tells someone on the tapes that he really doesn't want money or a role in the hotel deal, the defense insists he was telling the truth and showing his true colors.

"He was holding a wolf by the ears," Reyes's attorney, Mike Ramsey, explained of his client's seemingly contradictory statements on the tapes. "If he lets go, he gets bit." While he was holding the wolf, Reyes found a way to pocket a satchel containing $50,000 and, according to his own defense, nearly $10,000 in undelivered bribes.

Closing arguments last week allowed the parties one last chance to imprint their scheme of things on the upcoming jury deliberations. As jurors and onlookers alike coughed from exposure to the tainted air outside, smoke became a recurring image in the lawyers' speeches as well. According to Ramsey, his client's incriminating statements about bribes and corrupt behavior were just Ben's way of "blowing smoke" at the federal agents.

Prosecutor Attanasio called that defense a smoke screen to allow corrupt city officials to offer and accept bribes with impunity. Attanasio derided the defense's "smoke machine," an apparent reference to the device employed by the bogus mastermind in The Wizard of Oz.

Betti Maldonado's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, who has characterized his client as a gullible, goodhearted ditz throughout the trial, was quick to seize on the analogy and put his client in the starring role.

"I do see Betti as Dorothy, bright eyed and innocent," declared DeGuerin. "And Toto, pulling the curtain aside." Then he pointed to FBI Special Agent Ron Stern, the sting's architect, who was sitting at the prosecution table. "That's the Wizard of Oz," intoned the lawyer. "That's who's pulling the controls, and that's the curtain you've been able to see behind briefly."

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