And the Sting Goes On

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

Reyes claimed he gave Peavy money in a bathroom at the Wyndham Warwick, but agents did not witness the transfer. In another incident, Peavy accepted an envelope containing cash, but only after it was pressed upon him by a federal agent in a restaurant parking lot.

In his opening statement to jurors, Cogdell introduced a new wrinkle into his defense by incorporating Reyes as one of the villains.

Cogdell snatched up a government photo of Reyes on display in the courtroom and declared that Attanasio was correct -- "dead bang right" -- about the case being one of greed and corruption.

However, Cogdell said the ones greedy and corrupt were FBI undercover informant Julio Molineiro and "to a lesser extent, Ben Reyes."

"What he became later in this operation, I'm not here to explain or justify," Cogdell said. He told jurors his client knew nothing of the questionable private sides of Reyes and Maldonado, and thought he was receiving campaign contributions rather than bribes.

Peavy's biggest problem may be his visit to political consultant Sue Walden after the investigation became public. He presented an envelope of new bills to the political consultant and tried to get her to return it to the FBI. Walden refused and advised him to consult a lawyer. Cogdell contends that attorney David Berg then advised Peavy that he faced only a minor violation of campaign laws and didn't need to return the money.

However, if Peavy had already spent the original bills -- federal agents recorded the serial numbers -- he could not return the money without undermining his claim that he thought it was a legal campaign contribution. In that case, Berg's advice may have been the only option for Peavy to follow while maintaining his innocence.

The defendant who hasn't added lawyers or changed the thrust of his defense is Councilman John Castillo, who admits he took money from Reyes but claims it was the payback of an old debt rather than a bribe.

As for a second packet of cash given to Castillo by Maldonado, he claims it was a campaign contribution he simply forgot to return. He says he gave it to his lawyer, Frumencio Reyes, who put it in a safe after the investigation went public. Castillo claims he had already spent some of the money at a scholarship fund-raiser trying to win the title of "King Ugly," certainly a laudable use for an alleged bribe.

While Castillo attorney Robert Bennett attacked Frumencio Reyes in his opening argument for advising Castillo not to return the money, Castillo really owes his former attorney a debt of gratitude. Because some of the bills produced from Reyes's safe were minted after the investigation became public, it's impossible to prove whether it was Castillo or his lawyer who spent and then replaced a portion of the money.

The moral: A bad lawyer can make a good defense.
What the defendants in this trial really have going for them is that none of them asked for the payoffs which were forced upon them. The second trial documented Ben Reyes's continuous demands and ultimate receipt of $50,000, as well as Maldonado's giddy enthusiasm for the payoff effort. This time around, the characters, and the criminal allegations, come across as petty and contrived.

It's not going to be easy to convince a jury that the remaining defendants deserve conviction and prison for simply taking what was pressed into their hands under circumstances far less clear-cut than Ben's damning acceptance of that bag of loot.

Try your news tips out on the Insider. Call them in to him at (713)280-2483, fax them to (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.

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