After the umpteenth playing in court of a videotape in which she tells an FBI undercover informant in early 1996 that they are involved in a conspiracy, Betti Maldonado tries to explain her shriek of laughter that preceded her definition of the word conspiracy. According to Maldonado, it meant "I want to do something to him or her or take something away from him or her."
The 40-year-old former Houston port commissioner's defense against federal conspiracy and bribery charges hinges on the premise that she was under such pressure from two FBI operatives masquerading as hotel investors that she had lost the ability to say no to their demands that she arrange cash payoffs to City Council members. How, asked prosecutor Michael Attanasio, could that devil-may-care demeanor and cynical laugh recorded on the videotape have come from a desperate woman under duress?
Glaring at Attanasio, the curly-haired, suited Maldonado turned beseeching eyes to her federal jury. A woman who first attracted local notice as a radio/TV show host, she implored, "Have you ever heard of nervous laughter? Every day in this court I'm dying inside. Do you think I show that? Then or now?"
Hardly. In fact, the oddest thing about Maldonado's five-day stint on the stand testifying in her own defense last week was that she quietly cried several times when her defense attorney Dick DeGuerin questioned her, but seemed relatively self assured, in control and capable of angry sarcasm when the baby-faced Attanasio did his velvet glove interrogation.
She seemed to be unconsciously performing according to each attorney's view of her. By turns, she was the weak-willed, sobbing victim of FBI bullies, and then again, the experienced, former city NAFTA liaison and political consultant who had once had carte blanche access to mayor Bob Lanier's inner circle.
On tape Maldonado described one opponent's tactics as "fuck the mayor." On another she coolly characterized black Council members as "different from our Latinos, oblivious to the merits of a project and obsessed with 'what's in it for me.' " On the stand Maldonado claimed she only meant that black officials take better care of their constituents than do their Hispanic counterparts.
Attanasio made much of several tapes in which Maldonado appears to clearly define for the federal agents which Council members will accept cash payments, and which will not. Her phrases like "I know what you can get away with, with who," pointed out the prosecutor, hardly seemed the dialogue of a terrorized victim. Maldonado countered that she was talking about legal campaign contributions and not bribes.
And so the cross-examination went for the better part of a day. More a chess game and less the emotional fireworks display expected by most observers of the former Hotel Six conspiracy-bribery trial.
The Betti who took the stand wasn't the same emotional basket case described in that first nine-week marathon that ended in a hung jury late last spring. Maldonado did not testify in her own defense in the first trial, and at the time DeGuerin said he did not want "those bastards," his term for the prosecutors, to have the chance to chew her up in cross-examination.
Like the relationship between the Monica Lewinsky-Linda Tripp tapes and the President Bill Clinton impeachment, Maldonado's long-delayed testimony added little to the case in the way of previously unknown facts, but provided an opportunity to get a much better feel for her personality.
This time around, Maldonado and co-defendant and former councilman Ben Reyes are being tried separately from Councilmen Michael Yarbrough and John Castillo and former councilman John Peavy, and the atmosphere of the proceeding is starkly different. The first trial seethed with emotions, fueled by a courtroom packed with media and partisans of both the defendants and the government. Nearly every defense objection vibrated with outrage, and surveillance video and audio tapes played for the first time provided fresh grist daily for hallway discussions.
By contrast, the second trial has proceeded largely in a media vacuum, with the courtroom nearly empty of observers. The media's withdrawal clearly affected trial judge David Hittner, who visibly brightened when long-absent reporters entered the room. The accommodating judge helpfully instructed his court coordinator to alert journalists when Maldonado's cross-examination began.
Even bulldog defense attorney Mike Ramsey, Reyes's lawyer, seemed uncharacteristically subdued. "Nobody likes trying a case the second time," shrugged the gray-haired counselor, and nothing in this retrial counters that sentiment.
The jury to decide the fate of Maldonado and Reyes is also starkly different. Heavily weighted on the distaff side with seven white females, three African-American women, but no Hispanics, it seems far more alert and united. Whispered jokes occasionally rippled the length of the jury box, and some of Maldonado's statements provoked conspiratorial eye-rolling. The consensus on the federal side is that this panel is a big improvement over the previous jury, where several holdouts from the start prevented any compromise verdicts. Whether that is wishful thinking won't be known until the trial concludes several weeks hence.
"Oh, God, I'm going to do this," Maldonado recalled in court of her thoughts of the moment her hand grasped a manila envelope containing $3,000 cash. She thrust it across a table at the Hyatt Regency coffee shop toward Castillo. "I'm going to have to do this."
No one had blackmailed Maldonado, or literally kidnapped her or threatened her family in order to get her cooperation. That came a week or so later, according to DeGuerin, when FBI agents tried to force her to become a cooperating witness in their investigation and continue to make payoffs to Council members. Since Hittner refused to allow any of Maldonado's later dealings with the FBI to be introduced in evidence, the jury has heard nothing of those strong-arm tactics.
Betti would eventually break free of the FBI in early May, but as of April 29, 1996 --the day she gave Castillo the envelope -- the coercion Maldonado had undergone was nothing more severe than receiving cash payments from the fictional Cayman Group and having to sit through a series of meetings and phone calls with the agents in their roles as bogus South American businessmen.
The fulcrum of the federal case is those few minutes of time when Maldonado drove Castillo to the coffee shop and then handed him the envelope after informant Julio Molineiro excused himself and left the room. No fewer than three FBI mini-cams focused on the table as Maldonado delivered the envelope.
Conceding she had the opportunity to abort the operation, Maldonado lamented on the stand, "At that moment I was following instructions. I decided to do it, and I wish I had not." She insisted that by then, she had lost the ability to say no to the agents.
In the defense crafted by DeGuerin at the first trial, Maldonado was stuck with the unflattering role of good-hearted but naive Betty Boop, a city hall lightweight trapped by unscrupulous FBI undercover agents and intimidated into passing cash in envelopes to City Council members seeking inclusion in the downtown convention center hotel deal. In this scenario, Betti knows at some point that she's gone wrong, but she just can't help herself. The federal devils made her do it.
In building that portrait, DeGuerin repeatedly asked most witnesses who took the stand whether they considered his client naive. After the first trial, jurors vented their displeasure at what they saw as a tactic demeaning to Maldonado, and she indicated to friends that it was personally painful being characterized as a nitwit. So this time around DeGuerin focused more on the unsavory, unprincipled tactics of the agents, and less on the foibles of his client.
Contending the agents illegally entrapped Maldonado into actions she would never have carried out on her own, the lawyer kept an entrapment tally going on a blackboard during his examination of Maldonado, marking down each time the FBI agents brought up the subject of cash payments, and each time his client brought up that same subject. At last count it was the government in a rout, 113-23.
In retooling his defense DeGuerin also liberally adopted some of the defenses used by Reyes, who freely admitted taking the agent's money but claimed he kept it and lied on tape about giving bribes to Council members. According to Ben, he did this to protect the Council members from the reckless South American cowboys portrayed by informer Julio Molineiro and FBI agent Bob Dogium. Reyes, boasted attorney Ramsey, "scammed the scammers."
Like Reyes, Maldonado testified that when she appealed late in April 1996 to the agents to give her their cash and let her select the times and places to pass it to Council members, she also was lying and had no intention of actually passing the money on to the officials. Likewise, Maldonado claimed that one of her most incriminating conversations, in which she reported that Councilman Yarbrough had asked for a trip and spending money from the Cayman Group, was her own fiction just to feed the agents what they wanted to hear. On several tapes where Maldonado describes Council members Yarbrough, Peavy, and Castillo as predisposed to take cash, she now explains she was simply repeating to the agents their previous claims that those officials had taken cash payments.
The problem with appropriating elements of Reyes's "blowing smoke" defense is that it clashes with the image of Maldonado as FBI patsy. "I was pressured," Maldonado repeatedly testified. "I don't think I ever felt I could say no." The contradiction between the two Bettis, one who has knuckled under to the FBI and the other who is trying to manipulate them, never was resolved in her testimony.
One of the few scraps of new information to come out in Maldonado's stint on the stand was that, during the same period she was working with the Cayman Group, she had received $12,000 from the public relations firm of Peppar and Post. That firm is also the target of another FBI investigation because of its links to a French engineering firm, PSG, which had been seeking to privatize the city of Houston wastewater system in 1996. According to Maldonado, she backed out of that relationship after being pressured to take money from the firm and pass it on to City Council members as campaign contributions. Such "pass through" contributions are illegal.
On one of the FBI audio tapes Maldonado marvels to the agents that PSG is passing huge amounts of money, including contributions of $50,000 and $10,000, to the Council members. Under questioning by DeGuerin, Maldonado said she resigned from her contract with Peppar and Post because "I began to feel some pressure from them and thought that what they were trying to do was not right."
That disclosure raises the obvious question: If Maldonado could say no to Peppar and Post and walk away from a lucrative deal, why couldn't she do the same thing with the Cayman Group, which involved less money and far riskier behavior?
In fact, several sources familiar with the Peppar and Post situation suggest that Maldonado actually resigned because she was miffed that a fellow consultant, Willard Jackson, had received a larger cut of the contract.
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At one point in DeGuerin's examination of his client, he commented that a taped Maldonado comment to the agents seemed "disjointed."
"My head is disjointed," replied Maldonado of her frame of mind at the time. "I'm going with the flow. Going with the moment."
Two and a half years later, her defense seems to be stuck in that same posture. Maldonado may well be acquitted on the grounds she was entrapped by the agents into committing acts she never would have engaged in otherwise. But judging by her testimony, she hadn't been forced to do anything against her will on the day she gave John Castillo that cash-filled envelope.
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