Coming Down to the Liar

The second sting trial ends where the investigation began

Former city councilman Ben Reyes dabbed wearily at his shadowed eyes and momentarily seemed on the verge of tears. As a defendant in the city hall bribery conspiracy sting trial, his last stint on the witness stand inched toward a conclusion last week.

After hundreds of hours of court time spanning two marathon trials over the last year, the clock had run down to just a few more hours of redirect examination of Reyes by his attorney Mike Ramsey. Even that remaining sliver of time seemed too much for the 52-year-old defendant to stomach.

Even though the jury would eventually find Reyes guilty of bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud and co-defendant Betti Maldonado guilty of three counts of bribery and conspiracy, it was clear as he wound up his testimony that the once fearsome Patrón of the East End was already a beaten, broken man.

In late summer of '95, Reyes thought his fortunes had bottomed out and had no place to go but up. He was bankrupt, and his two-decade power base on City Council was approaching an end through term limits, when the bogus Cayman Group appeared at his office door. With its FBI-supplied cash largess, this seemed to be pure providence. In fact, it was his total undoing.

Reyes's life was just beginning a free fall into personal hell. As he wrapped up his testimony last Wednesday, Reyes's reputation was in shreds, his family shattered, his finances in ruins, a namesake son dead by suicide, and the man himself continuing only through the sheer will to survive.

Even that seemed to be failing. Reyes had grown increasingly shaky the previous day during a relatively restrained but methodical interrogation by prosecutor Mike Attanasio in federal Judge David Hittner's court. After Attanasio finished, Ramsey began plowing back over the same turf, promising to sort out his client's tangle of incriminating statements and contradictions, to demonstrate Reyes's innocence.

Ramsey continued in that vein the next morning. Shortly before noon, with the task less than half completed, his client motioned to him from the stand and got a brief private conference.

After the short break, Ramsey hurried his client's testimony to a quick conclusion. He elicited Reyes's denial that he had ever accepted or given bribes. To a final question about his current state of mind, Reyes drifted in his answer before waving what seemed a white flag.

"I spent all my life trying to make life better for people, and this whole episode has destroyed this human being," said the once dominant force in Houston Hispanic politics. He sounded very much like he was throwing himself to the mercy of the jury. "I used to be a strong man, and I can't say that anymore."

After that, Ramsey extended his own mercy. "No further questions."

The federal bribery-conspiracy investigation had six defendants at its peak. It began on the trail of Ben Reyes in August of 1995, and the convictions of Reyes and former port commissioner Maldonado gave it new life. The remaining defendants, Councilmembers John Castillo and Michael Yarbrough, and former councilman and judge John Peavy are slated to go on trial January 19. Immediately after his court victory, prosecutor Attanasio noted that two of the remaining indictees are sitting councilmembers and "we look forward more than I can say to presenting evidence against the remaining defendants to another jury."

Had the jury acquitted Reyes or failed to reach a decision, Attanasio's Justice Department supervisors would have had to think long and hard about cutting their losses from a multimillion-dollar investigation and prosecution. With the slam-dunk verdict, the onus is now on Peavy, Castillo and Yarbrough to consider plea bargain negotiations with the feds. The relative ease with which Attanasio and co-prosecutor John Scott demolished Reyes in the second trial does not bode well for Yarbrough, who was videotaped taking cash and talking trash with undercover agents.

The government accused Reyes of organizing a conspiracy to bribe City Councilmembers in the awarding of a hotel project for the convention center. Reyes also is accused of mail fraud and of accepting a $50,000 bribe from the masquerading FBI agents.

In the first trial, the sheer chutzpah of Reyes's defense seemed to throw the prosecution off stride. Ramsey crafted a "smoke and mirrors" argument that Reyes himself played the Cayman Group for fools. Every incriminating statement Reyes made to the agents, every boast of corruption, every claim of paying a bribe became an act in a charade designed to steal their money while keeping them under his control. Of course, claimed Reyes, he wasn't controlling them for his own gain, but rather the good of the Hispanic community he served. If that community just happened to be his brothers, his girlfriend, his associates and himself, well, so much the better.

Reyes even deserved to keep his ill-gotten federal cash, declared Ramsey, because he had "scammed the scammers."

When the FBI's taped conversations suited Reyes's defense, then he was simply being honest and straightforward, the Good Ben. When the verbiage was corrupt and incriminating, it became role-playing as Bad Ben. "I was making this up as I went along," Reyes testified.

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