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Poor Betti Maldonado just can't seem to get out of Ben Reyes's shadow.
The association of the former Houston media consultant and port commissioner with the trash-talking ex-councilman helped land her in the federal slammer two years ago after both were convicted of bribery and conspiracy. Now her association with Reyes in a last-minute commutation effort directed at President Bill Clinton just might be the factor that keeps her in jail.
Unlike a full presidential pardon, a commuted sentence reduces the prisoner's term to time served but would not expunge a conviction from the record. Betti's petition also asks for remission of a $6,000 fine assessed as part of her punishment. Clinton has until he leaves office on Saturday, January 20, to grant clemency.
Reyes was at the center of the FBI's 1996 sting operation that resulted in six indictments. He starred in a dramatic FBI undercover videotape in which he toted off a satchel stuffed with $50,000. By comparison, Maldonado was a minor player who followed the direction of undercover agents attempting to bribe city officials in return for their support of a downtown convention center hotel project. After a mistrial, Ben and Betti were retried together and convicted on bribery-conspiracy charges. Reyes received a nine-year sentence and is currently an inmate janitor at a minimum-security federal facility in Georgia. Betti is serving a four-year, three-month sentence at a Fort Worth federal prison where she leads GED classes for convicts.
Maldonado and Reyes are among dozens of convicts who submitted petitions to Clinton for last-minute acts of presidential mercy. Other controversial requests came from Whitewater figures Webster Hubbell and Susan McDougal, and American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of killing an FBI agent.
While Betti's supporters argue that she has served more than her share of time for transgressions, some local memories are not so forgiving about Ben's role.
A Houston businessman, one of those solicited to write a letter to Clinton supporting the pair, forwarded the missive to The Insider along with this note: "I am personally inclined to write a letter protesting the early release of Ben Reyes."
He's on the same wavelength with the former lead prosecutor in the Hotel Six case, who contends that a commutation for either defendant would be an insult to law enforcement and the justice system that resulted in their convictions.
U.S. District Judge David Hittner, who presided in the case and imposed the punishments, indicated he felt it would be inappropriate to share his view of the request to commute the sentences.
Maldonado attorney Dick DeGuerin believes his client was hurt by having to share the dock with Reyes, who virtually broke down on the stand under cross-examination by prosecutors.
"I think she got some of that hot grease splashed on her from Ben's skillet," notes DeGuerin.
Like it or not, Betti's still stuck to Ben. His backers put up the money to launch the commutation campaign months ago, and they hired a former Justice Department official and expert on pardons and commuted sentences, Margaret Love, to work the case.
Contacted in Washington, Love would confirm only that Reyes and Maldonado were her clients. According to Love, she ran the pardons and commutation office in the Justice Department's Washington headquarters for seven years before opening her own practice.
Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee volunteered her support and reportedly asked the president to release Reyes and Maldonado immediately. It was not clear whether Lee had been in direct contact with the president. She did not return Insider inquiries concerning the case.
The congresswoman played a highly publicized role as Clinton's "All Sheila -- All the Time" defender against impeachment when his own job hung in the balance two years ago. She also hit the road for defeated presidential candidate Al Gore during the Florida recount controversy. In light of those services, the president may have trouble ignoring a Lee plea for Ben and Betti.
Maldonado's petition reads: "Betti Maldonado was an unwitting dupe of skilled FBI agents who were intending to set a trap for controversial Houston City councilman Ben Reyes .Her naivety [sic] and her willingness to work for Hispanic inclusion" in a convention center hotel project "caused her to give in to the undercover agents' later suggestion of illegality."
Reyes's petition was more inflammatory. It accused federal agents of conducting "an unfair and unjust FBI sting operation" that targeted Hispanic and black officials.
That statement drew a rebuttal from Mike Attanasio, the lead prosecutor in the case and now a civil lawyer in San Diego, California.
"The lawyers are raising the issue of race again, which I think is both unfortunate and unjustified," counters Attanasio. He points out that a racially balanced jury heard the evidence and convicted Reyes and Maldonado. He recalls that some jurors were so offended by the pair's conduct they later returned to watch the sentencing, "and they did not come to root for the defendants."
Attanasio says a commutation "would be a slap in the face to Judge Hittner all the FBI and prosecutors who worked on the case, and most importantly a slap in the face to the jurors and grand jurors who heard the evidence in the case and reached their own decision." He predicts that Clinton will not commute the sentences, an action usually reserved for convicts who are ill or approaching the end of their prison terms.
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