And the Sting Goes On

Round Three offers fresh lawyers, a new villain and the same old flicks

For a moment last Thursday, the scene in Judge David Hittner's
courtroom had more deja vu than even federal prosecutor Mike Attanasio anticipated. Mingling with the attorneys for the three defendants in the third and most likely final City Hall Sting trial was Ben Reyes's lawyer, Mike Ramsey. Never mind that his client was at that moment ensconced in a federal prison in Beaumont serving the first month of a nine-year sentence.

"Couldn't stay away?" inquired the prosecutor quizzically as he passed Ramsey on the way to his table.

"If I could try this case one more time, I'd get it right," crowed the silver-haired and -tongued Ramsey, beaming with his trademark "gonna chew you up and spit you out" grin.

Meanwhile, KHOU/Channel 11 artist Eve Myles sat in a courtroom pew busily applying her pastels to yet another Sting vignette, some of the characters so familiar she could have drawn them blindfolded. Myles, who could now stage a gallery opening with her portfolio from this case alone, says she has never illustrated a court three-peat before.

The first round of this marathon, dubbed "Hotel Six," ended in a mistrial nearly a year ago when jurors could not make up their minds about the innocence or guilt of the remaining five defendants. Hittner had already exonerated Ross Allyn, ruling that the government had not made a case against the lobbyist.

Reyes and former port commissioner Betti Maldonado served as an undercover agent's cash couriers in the yearlong investigation that began in 1995. They went to trial together and were convicted of bribery and conspiracy at the conclusion of Sting Two last fall.

Maldonado now prepares for her extended stay at the Carswell Air Force Base-turned-penal-facility in Fort Worth. She will join current resident and Ponzi scheme artist Teresa Rodriguez there later this month, making Carswell the only jail ever to house two former Houston Hispanic businesswomen of the year. Since they were onetime gal pals of former mayoral first lady Elyse Lanier, perhaps they can look forward to some consoling visits from their old friend. Elyse's favorite food-delivery service, Tony's At Home, could design a special jail menu for those occasions.

With the fate of half the Hotel Six decided, the climactic Round Three features current Councilmen Michael Yarbrough and John Castillo and former councilman and judge John Peavy. They are accused of taking cash bribes ladled out by Reyes, Maldonado or federal undercover agents posing as representatives of the sham Cayman Group, which sought a cut of the downtown convention center hotel contract.

If Hotel Six was a draw and Sting Two a slam dunk for the justice department, then the current trial offers the last chance for the hometown boys to even the score. And there are several factors that make the job of Attanasio and fellow prosecutor John Scott much more difficult and the prospect of another federal sweep unlikely.

The defendant most at risk is clearly Yarbrough. He has the starring role in the FBI's "tape of tapes." Not only is he seen and heard confirming that he received $1,500 from Reyes, but he then takes $1,500 more from FBI special agent Bob Dogium. Yarbrough is also a mostly passive participant in one of the more florid conversations of the investigation, a lunchtime chat at Carrabba's. It begins with Yarbrough declaring, "I need a job" and ends in a profanity-laced conversation in which Reyes instructs the rookie councilman in the fine art of shaking down city contractors.

Yarbrough has a new legal team, headed by white-haired criminal attorney Robert Scardino, an aggressive lawyer with a folksy country-boy approach. "Almost like a cuttin' horse in a pen with the cows" is how Scardino described the behavior of the undercover agents as they manipulated Yarbrough into admitting he had received money from Reyes. As for that stuff about needing a job, Scardino explained in his opening argument that Yarbrough had been poking fun at Reyes because he had just vacated his seat on City Council. And the confirmation of a bribe was really Yarbrough's referring to legitimate campaign contributions he'd received.

The problem with those explanations is that Yarbrough showed no reticence about taking cash from the agent on camera, and he told Reyes on tape, "I need a job" -- not "you need a job." Personal pronouns aside, Scardino definitely has his job cut out for himself.

Peavy, too, has a new lawyer, although it remains to be seen how much prime time Richard "Racehorse" Haynes logs in his defense. Judge Hittner allowed Haynes to join the defense just before the trial got under way but ordered attorney Dan Cogdell to continue as lead attorney. Cogdell, like Scardino, loves to play the court hayseed, enough so that a plate of straw might be included at the defense table for both to chew on during their deliveries. In defending Peavy, the former family court jurist, Cogdell quickly incurred Hittner's ire for continually referring to his client as "judge," a title Hittner had forbidden in the trial.

Unlike Scardino, Cogdell and Haynes are blessed with a client who spoke largely in monosyllabic words on the undercover tapes and who allegedly took cash payments in circumstances far more muddied than Yarbrough's.

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