Going Through These Things Twice

tuck inside of Hotel Six with the Houston blues again

A handful of reporters, photographers, trial groupies and lawyers milled around in front of the downtown federal building in the sullen, hazy heat of a late Thursday afternoon last month. A mistrial had just been declared in the multimillion-dollar Hotel Six bribery-conspiracy investigation and trial, and the motley crew clustered eagerly near the only unlocked door. They waited for the dismissed jurors to trickle down from the courtroom, hoping the more talkative panelists might shed some light on why they had failed to reach agreement on verdicts against five current or former city officials.

Taking in the scene was Ross Allyn, the bespectacled, frizzy-haired lobbyist who has seen the case from both sides. First he was one of the original six defendants and then an acquitted observer, courtesy of Judge David Hittner, who had ordered charges dismissed against Allyn earlier in the trial for lack of evidence.

Allyn and his attorney would later dun the federal government for $372,000 to cover his legal bills. But at this moment, in the confusion surrounding the mistrial, Allyn focused less on debt collection and more on dispensing sympathy for his former codefendants.

"My heart just goes out to all the defendants, to have to go through this once again," declared Allyn, obviously relieved to be analyzing the legal wreck from the safety of the roadside rather than while pinned in a crumpled passenger seat. "It's a terrible, terrible burden to put them through."

Of course, it's a terrible burden to put us all through as well. The trial is tentatively set to begin again in mid-September: On video replays, Ben Reyes will again deliver his "buy us some leaders" lecture and take his bag of loot. Michael Yarbrough will confirm that he only got $1,500, half of what he was promised by federal agents, and then will take the balance and pocket it. Betti Maldonado will giggle once again when an informant asks what they are up to, and blurt out "a conspiracy!" followed by a shriek of giddy laughter. At some point, oily FBI informant Julio Molineiro will smile his Cheshire-cat grin and say "Chess, sir," or "No, sir." A new set of jurors will hear how the FBI set up a dummy company called the Cayman Group whose bogus businessmen offered cash to city officials to buy their way into the downtown hotel convention project.

We've heard it all ad nauseam, and now we will hear it all again. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, not even a $50,000 satchel of cash can pay the price to keep us from going through all these things twice.

City Councilman Rob Todd called the specter of a retrial a continuing "black eye" for the city. Coming from the District E official, that's saying a mouthful, considering his own recent contributions to the image of city government -- denouncing the public sale of edible underwear and challenging a mayoral order mandating equal treatment for gays in city hiring.

While the crowd waited downstairs for the jury, federal Judge Hittner huddled in his eighth-floor chambers for a final debriefing of the 12 panelists. In four days of deliberation, they had come close but failed to reach agreement on the guilt or innocence of any of the defendants. Hittner ran through a laundry list of notes explaining what had transpired during stretches of the trial when jurors had been excluded from the courtroom. Then the judge and jurors traded views on the high and low points of the proceeding.

According to one juror, the panel had a rare moment of unanimity in commending the conduct of federal prosecutor Mike Attanasio, who had been razor sharp, superbly organized and totally under control throughout the trial. So cool and under control was Attanasio that a Houston assistant U.S. attorney, while watching his closing argument, nit-picked that the presentation lacked a certain "oomph."

Conversely, panelists in a subsequent interview with lawyers and prosecutors took defense attorney Dick DeGuerin to task for his repeated attempts to prompt witnesses into describing Betti Maldonado as a gullible naif, a tactic some found insulting to his client's dignity and their common sense.

The judge also discussed his rulings limiting the defense references to racial targeting of the defendants. Jurors responded by telling Hittner they did not find evidence of such racial motivation in their review of the evidence.

The mistrial voided nine weeks of labor by the judge and his court staff, extensive preparation by two of the Justice Department's top prosecutors and a cadre of FBI special agents, and the efforts of six top Houston criminal defense attorneys. Given the squandering of all that legal blood and sweat, Hittner seemed unusually cheerful as the proceeding ground to an inconclusive halt.

Throughout the trial, the judge displayed bursts of temper. At one point, he brought in the Hotel Six jury to watch as he verbally whipsawed two prospective jurors in other cases who had failed to make the cattle calls from which panels are selected. He had humiliated one of the men by ridiculing his failure to wear a suit and tie in court. Shortly before the Hotel Six proceeding ended, he bellowed, "Get them here!" several times at defense lawyers when their clients failed to make a 15-minute court call. Hittner did apologize later for that outburst.

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