Betti's Last Stand

Why couldn't she just say no?

No one had blackmailed Maldonado, or literally kidnapped her or threatened her family in order to get her cooperation. That came a week or so later, according to DeGuerin, when FBI agents tried to force her to become a cooperating witness in their investigation and continue to make payoffs to Council members. Since Hittner refused to allow any of Maldonado's later dealings with the FBI to be introduced in evidence, the jury has heard nothing of those strong-arm tactics.

Betti would eventually break free of the FBI in early May, but as of April 29, 1996 --the day she gave Castillo the envelope -- the coercion Maldonado had undergone was nothing more severe than receiving cash payments from the fictional Cayman Group and having to sit through a series of meetings and phone calls with the agents in their roles as bogus South American businessmen.

The fulcrum of the federal case is those few minutes of time when Maldonado drove Castillo to the coffee shop and then handed him the envelope after informant Julio Molineiro excused himself and left the room. No fewer than three FBI mini-cams focused on the table as Maldonado delivered the envelope.

Conceding she had the opportunity to abort the operation, Maldonado lamented on the stand, "At that moment I was following instructions. I decided to do it, and I wish I had not." She insisted that by then, she had lost the ability to say no to the agents.

In the defense crafted by DeGuerin at the first trial, Maldonado was stuck with the unflattering role of good-hearted but naive Betty Boop, a city hall lightweight trapped by unscrupulous FBI undercover agents and intimidated into passing cash in envelopes to City Council members seeking inclusion in the downtown convention center hotel deal. In this scenario, Betti knows at some point that she's gone wrong, but she just can't help herself. The federal devils made her do it.

In building that portrait, DeGuerin repeatedly asked most witnesses who took the stand whether they considered his client naive. After the first trial, jurors vented their displeasure at what they saw as a tactic demeaning to Maldonado, and she indicated to friends that it was personally painful being characterized as a nitwit. So this time around DeGuerin focused more on the unsavory, unprincipled tactics of the agents, and less on the foibles of his client.

Contending the agents illegally entrapped Maldonado into actions she would never have carried out on her own, the lawyer kept an entrapment tally going on a blackboard during his examination of Maldonado, marking down each time the FBI agents brought up the subject of cash payments, and each time his client brought up that same subject. At last count it was the government in a rout, 113-23.

In retooling his defense DeGuerin also liberally adopted some of the defenses used by Reyes, who freely admitted taking the agent's money but claimed he kept it and lied on tape about giving bribes to Council members. According to Ben, he did this to protect the Council members from the reckless South American cowboys portrayed by informer Julio Molineiro and FBI agent Bob Dogium. Reyes, boasted attorney Ramsey, "scammed the scammers."

Like Reyes, Maldonado testified that when she appealed late in April 1996 to the agents to give her their cash and let her select the times and places to pass it to Council members, she also was lying and had no intention of actually passing the money on to the officials. Likewise, Maldonado claimed that one of her most incriminating conversations, in which she reported that Councilman Yarbrough had asked for a trip and spending money from the Cayman Group, was her own fiction just to feed the agents what they wanted to hear. On several tapes where Maldonado describes Council members Yarbrough, Peavy, and Castillo as predisposed to take cash, she now explains she was simply repeating to the agents their previous claims that those officials had taken cash payments.

The problem with appropriating elements of Reyes's "blowing smoke" defense is that it clashes with the image of Maldonado as FBI patsy. "I was pressured," Maldonado repeatedly testified. "I don't think I ever felt I could say no." The contradiction between the two Bettis, one who has knuckled under to the FBI and the other who is trying to manipulate them, never was resolved in her testimony.

One of the few scraps of new information to come out in Maldonado's stint on the stand was that, during the same period she was working with the Cayman Group, she had received $12,000 from the public relations firm of Peppar and Post. That firm is also the target of another FBI investigation because of its links to a French engineering firm, PSG, which had been seeking to privatize the city of Houston wastewater system in 1996. According to Maldonado, she backed out of that relationship after being pressured to take money from the firm and pass it on to City Council members as campaign contributions. Such "pass through" contributions are illegal.

On one of the FBI audio tapes Maldonado marvels to the agents that PSG is passing huge amounts of money, including contributions of $50,000 and $10,000, to the Council members. Under questioning by DeGuerin, Maldonado said she resigned from her contract with Peppar and Post because "I began to feel some pressure from them and thought that what they were trying to do was not right."

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