By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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After the umpteenth playing in court of a videotape in which she tells an FBI undercover informant in early 1996 that they are involved in a conspiracy, Betti Maldonado tries to explain her shriek of laughter that preceded her definition of the word conspiracy. According to Maldonado, it meant "I want to do something to him or her or take something away from him or her."
The 40-year-old former Houston port commissioner's defense against federal conspiracy and bribery charges hinges on the premise that she was under such pressure from two FBI operatives masquerading as hotel investors that she had lost the ability to say no to their demands that she arrange cash payoffs to City Council members. How, asked prosecutor Michael Attanasio, could that devil-may-care demeanor and cynical laugh recorded on the videotape have come from a desperate woman under duress?
Glaring at Attanasio, the curly-haired, suited Maldonado turned beseeching eyes to her federal jury. A woman who first attracted local notice as a radio/TV show host, she implored, "Have you ever heard of nervous laughter? Every day in this court I'm dying inside. Do you think I show that? Then or now?"
Hardly. In fact, the oddest thing about Maldonado's five-day stint on the stand testifying in her own defense last week was that she quietly cried several times when her defense attorney Dick DeGuerin questioned her, but seemed relatively self assured, in control and capable of angry sarcasm when the baby-faced Attanasio did his velvet glove interrogation.
She seemed to be unconsciously performing according to each attorney's view of her. By turns, she was the weak-willed, sobbing victim of FBI bullies, and then again, the experienced, former city NAFTA liaison and political consultant who had once had carte blanche access to mayor Bob Lanier's inner circle.
On tape Maldonado described one opponent's tactics as "fuck the mayor." On another she coolly characterized black Council members as "different from our Latinos, oblivious to the merits of a project and obsessed with 'what's in it for me.' " On the stand Maldonado claimed she only meant that black officials take better care of their constituents than do their Hispanic counterparts.
Attanasio made much of several tapes in which Maldonado appears to clearly define for the federal agents which Council members will accept cash payments, and which will not. Her phrases like "I know what you can get away with, with who," pointed out the prosecutor, hardly seemed the dialogue of a terrorized victim. Maldonado countered that she was talking about legal campaign contributions and not bribes.
And so the cross-examination went for the better part of a day. More a chess game and less the emotional fireworks display expected by most observers of the former Hotel Six conspiracy-bribery trial.
The Betti who took the stand wasn't the same emotional basket case described in that first nine-week marathon that ended in a hung jury late last spring. Maldonado did not testify in her own defense in the first trial, and at the time DeGuerin said he did not want "those bastards," his term for the prosecutors, to have the chance to chew her up in cross-examination.
Like the relationship between the Monica Lewinsky-Linda Tripp tapes and the President Bill Clinton impeachment, Maldonado's long-delayed testimony added little to the case in the way of previously unknown facts, but provided an opportunity to get a much better feel for her personality.
This time around, Maldonado and co-defendant and former councilman Ben Reyes are being tried separately from Councilmen Michael Yarbrough and John Castillo and former councilman John Peavy, and the atmosphere of the proceeding is starkly different. The first trial seethed with emotions, fueled by a courtroom packed with media and partisans of both the defendants and the government. Nearly every defense objection vibrated with outrage, and surveillance video and audio tapes played for the first time provided fresh grist daily for hallway discussions.
By contrast, the second trial has proceeded largely in a media vacuum, with the courtroom nearly empty of observers. The media's withdrawal clearly affected trial judge David Hittner, who visibly brightened when long-absent reporters entered the room. The accommodating judge helpfully instructed his court coordinator to alert journalists when Maldonado's cross-examination began.
Even bulldog defense attorney Mike Ramsey, Reyes's lawyer, seemed uncharacteristically subdued. "Nobody likes trying a case the second time," shrugged the gray-haired counselor, and nothing in this retrial counters that sentiment.
The jury to decide the fate of Maldonado and Reyes is also starkly different. Heavily weighted on the distaff side with seven white females, three African-American women, but no Hispanics, it seems far more alert and united. Whispered jokes occasionally rippled the length of the jury box, and some of Maldonado's statements provoked conspiratorial eye-rolling. The consensus on the federal side is that this panel is a big improvement over the previous jury, where several holdouts from the start prevented any compromise verdicts. Whether that is wishful thinking won't be known until the trial concludes several weeks hence.
"Oh, God, I'm going to do this," Maldonado recalled in court of her thoughts of the moment her hand grasped a manila envelope containing $3,000 cash. She thrust it across a table at the Hyatt Regency coffee shop toward Castillo. "I'm going to have to do this."