Slipping Under the Bar Radar

Will a less-than-Frank Reyes cloud O'Quinn's win?

You figure the three lawyers representing the State Bar of Texas felt pretty stupid. A Harris County jury deliberated little more than a half-hour before rejecting their arguments and evidence in the disbarment case against super plaintiff's lawyer John O'Quinn and two associates. Deepening their humiliation, the pro bono State Bar squad learned they'd allowed Frank Reyes -- brother of former city councilman Ben Reyes, who was convicted of federal bribery and conspiracy charges -- to get on the jury that made him their foreman.

After all, if you represent a professional association trying to oust a member after a lengthy probe, you certainly don't want the brother of a man nabbed in an FBI sting operation to set the tone for the panel evaluating your case. As if the name Reyes weren't sufficient to set off alarm bells during jury selection, Frank Reyes, 55, also bears a more than passing resemblance to his younger brother, whose mug has been featured on TV newscasts and newspaper front pages for the last year. In fact, a public relations person who dropped in on the O'Quinn trial immediately commented on the facial similarity between Ben and the man in the juror's box.

Still, the bar legal team -- Broadus Spivey of Austin, Lonnie Morrison of Wichita Falls and Scott Rothenberg of Houston -- has one saving explanation for failing to weed out Reyes from the jury. The president and director of World Commerce Forwarding, an export-import business where Ben worked years ago, Frank is the eldest of the ten siblings in the Reyes clan. It turns out that he also exhibits a certain affinity with his brother's fluid concept of the truth as documented in the sting trial. Asked whether he or family members had been involved in criminal cases, Frank failed to mention either his own past DWI conviction or his brother's legal problems.

Reyes's failure to disclose puts the bar's Commission for Lawyer Discipline in a touchy position. The nine-person group, a mixture of laymen and attorneys, can instruct the lawyers to ask visiting district Judge Bill Rhea to overturn the jury verdict. That would cause a retrial of O'Quinn and associates Carl Shaw and Benton Musselwhite on allegations they used case runners to unethically snag clients in a North Carolina plane crash case. Or the group can swallow the verdict and acknowledge that the bar's evidence proved so weak the first time around that there is no point in walking that dog before another jury.

This was the second time the State Bar had tried to lift O'Quinn's law license, and it was equally unsuccessful. O'Quinn also was found not guilty recently on charges he failed to stop when pursued by a Houston police patrolman. O'Quinn has long claimed that jealous colleagues in the Texas bar are out to get him because of his successes, including making millions off breast implant litigation. Whether the bar mounts a third attempt to get O'Quinn's legal scalp may not be decided for several months.

"Right now decisions are being made as to what, if anything, to do about it," says a bar source. "One, further investigation; two, motion for new trial; three, filing an appeal. Those are calls that the Commission for Lawyer Discipline will have to make."

Final judgment has not been entered in the case, and appeals could be filed as late as February. Neither the attorneys representing the Texas bar nor its executive counsel Steve Young returned Insider inquiries.

A legal source on the bar's side says there is room for debate whether Frank Reyes's misstatements would automatically void the panel's verdict. There is no recent Texas Supreme Court ruling on the issue, there are no hard-and-fast civil procedure rules regarding the consequences of juror misconduct, and judges appear to have a wide latitude in individual cases. On the criminal side, a guilty verdict in the first murder trial of cheerleader mom Wanda Holloway in Harris County was invalidated by a juror's failure to disclose a criminal past.

In his instructions to the jury at the start of the disbarment trial, Judge Rhea emphasized the panelists' duty to be truthful when questioned by attorneys.

"If you do not obey the instructions I am about to give you, it may become necessary for another jury to retry this case with all of the attendant waste of your time here and expense to other litigants and the taxpayers of this county for another trial."

In particular, the instructions warned jurors that "the parties through their attorneys have the right to direct questions to each of you concerning your qualifications, backgrounds, experiences, and attitudes. In questioning you, they are not meddling in your personal affairs but are trying to select fair and impartial jurors who are free from bias or prejudice in this particular case. Do not conceal information or give answers which are not true!"

Reyes checked the "no" box on his juror application form in response to the question "have you ever been an accused, complainant, or witness in a criminal case?" In fact, Reyes had been charged with driving while intoxicated on October 21, 1989. He pleaded guilty the following February 20. Reyes was fined $350 and sentenced to 180 days in jail, probated to two years of supervision. A DWI is a misdemeanor but is also indisputably a criminal matter requiring disclosure by potential jurors.

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