Coming Down to the Liar
Former city councilman Ben Reyes dabbed wearily at his shadowed eyes and momentarily seemed on the verge of tears. As a defendant in the city hall bribery conspiracy sting trial, his last stint on the witness stand inched toward a conclusion last week.
After hundreds of hours of court time spanning two marathon trials over the last year, the clock had run down to just a few more hours of redirect examination of Reyes by his attorney Mike Ramsey. Even that remaining sliver of time seemed too much for the 52-year-old defendant to stomach.
Even though the jury would eventually find Reyes guilty of bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud and co-defendant Betti Maldonado guilty of three counts of bribery and conspiracy, it was clear as he wound up his testimony that the once fearsome Patrón of the East End was already a beaten, broken man.
In late summer of '95, Reyes thought his fortunes had bottomed out and had no place to go but up. He was bankrupt, and his two-decade power base on City Council was approaching an end through term limits, when the bogus Cayman Group appeared at his office door. With its FBI-supplied cash largess, this seemed to be pure providence. In fact, it was his total undoing.
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Reyes's life was just beginning a free fall into personal hell. As he wrapped up his testimony last Wednesday, Reyes's reputation was in shreds, his family shattered, his finances in ruins, a namesake son dead by suicide, and the man himself continuing only through the sheer will to survive.
Even that seemed to be failing. Reyes had grown increasingly shaky the previous day during a relatively restrained but methodical interrogation by prosecutor Mike Attanasio in federal Judge David Hittner's court. After Attanasio finished, Ramsey began plowing back over the same turf, promising to sort out his client's tangle of incriminating statements and contradictions, to demonstrate Reyes's innocence.
Ramsey continued in that vein the next morning. Shortly before noon, with the task less than half completed, his client motioned to him from the stand and got a brief private conference.
After the short break, Ramsey hurried his client's testimony to a quick conclusion. He elicited Reyes's denial that he had ever accepted or given bribes. To a final question about his current state of mind, Reyes drifted in his answer before waving what seemed a white flag.
"I spent all my life trying to make life better for people, and this whole episode has destroyed this human being," said the once dominant force in Houston Hispanic politics. He sounded very much like he was throwing himself to the mercy of the jury. "I used to be a strong man, and I can't say that anymore."
After that, Ramsey extended his own mercy. "No further questions."
The federal bribery-conspiracy investigation had six defendants at its peak. It began on the trail of Ben Reyes in August of 1995, and the convictions of Reyes and former port commissioner Maldonado gave it new life. The remaining defendants, Councilmembers John Castillo and Michael Yarbrough, and former councilman and judge John Peavy are slated to go on trial January 19. Immediately after his court victory, prosecutor Attanasio noted that two of the remaining indictees are sitting councilmembers and "we look forward more than I can say to presenting evidence against the remaining defendants to another jury."
Had the jury acquitted Reyes or failed to reach a decision, Attanasio's Justice Department supervisors would have had to think long and hard about cutting their losses from a multimillion-dollar investigation and prosecution. With the slam-dunk verdict, the onus is now on Peavy, Castillo and Yarbrough to consider plea bargain negotiations with the feds. The relative ease with which Attanasio and co-prosecutor John Scott demolished Reyes in the second trial does not bode well for Yarbrough, who was videotaped taking cash and talking trash with undercover agents.
The government accused Reyes of organizing a conspiracy to bribe City Councilmembers in the awarding of a hotel project for the convention center. Reyes also is accused of mail fraud and of accepting a $50,000 bribe from the masquerading FBI agents.
In the first trial, the sheer chutzpah of Reyes's defense seemed to throw the prosecution off stride. Ramsey crafted a "smoke and mirrors" argument that Reyes himself played the Cayman Group for fools. Every incriminating statement Reyes made to the agents, every boast of corruption, every claim of paying a bribe became an act in a charade designed to steal their money while keeping them under his control. Of course, claimed Reyes, he wasn't controlling them for his own gain, but rather the good of the Hispanic community he served. If that community just happened to be his brothers, his girlfriend, his associates and himself, well, so much the better.
Reyes even deserved to keep his ill-gotten federal cash, declared Ramsey, because he had "scammed the scammers."
When the FBI's taped conversations suited Reyes's defense, then he was simply being honest and straightforward, the Good Ben. When the verbiage was corrupt and incriminating, it became role-playing as Bad Ben. "I was making this up as I went along," Reyes testified.
That description might apply just as well to his defense. To explain taking the cash bribe from the agents as a legitimate business transaction, Reyes claimed he had met with informant Jose Molineiro at several unrecorded meetings at the Molcojetes restaurant. At these sessions, an agreement had supposedly been reached to loan Reyes the money for a joint real estate investment. Since Reyes conveniently could not remember the exact dates, the feds had no way to flatly disprove that they happened. As for all those other tapes where the agents clearly stated it was a bribe, well, Reyes explained that he had just let them talk.
Despite extensive documentation of his intention to profit from the Cayman Group downtown hotel deal, Reyes insisted he was driven by an idealistic desire to win a substantial role for Hispanics in the hotel project.
In the seven months since the first deadlocked sting trial, Attanasio had plenty of time to hone his counterattack. He methodically confronted Reyes with his own taped statements and those of others that point by point refuted his defense. Restricted to simple yes-or-no answers for the most part, Reyes seemed to grow weary of the game of denying that a bribe was a bribe, a front was a front, and a payoff was a payoff.
Under Attanasio's barrage of bite-sized questions, Reyes made damaging admission after admission. Yes, he created the plan to bribe councilmembers and set it in motion by arranging to meet them. Yes, he personally profited from cash given him by the undercover FBI agents while he was a councilmember who intended to vote on the project. Yes, he now regretted his actions which he admitted had stained the reputations of his colleagues.
Headlines in the Houston Chronicle on the two trials reflected the difference in Ben's performance in the two interrogations. "Reyes says he misled agents, did no bribing," the daily declared last May. Last week the headline read, "Reyes says he opened up door to bribery."
In his second crack at the smoke and mirror, Attanasio focused on logical inconsistencies. He carefully parsed the recordings of Reyes with the agents to demonstrate that neither Molineiro nor associate Marcos Correa seemed to know anything about any land investment scheme. Both repeatedly made clear to Reyes on tape that the $50,000 was a reward for his helping them win a role in the convention center hotel deal. Each time, Reyes did not disagree.
To Reyes's defense of only pretending to carry out bribes, Attanasio asked, "Who first brought up cash?"
"I did," answered Reyes.
"You are talking about bribes?" asked Attanasio.
"Yes, sir," replied Reyes.
Earlier, Reyes had insisted it was the Cayman operatives who wanted to do business "the South American way." The prosecutor displayed the transcript of a tape between Reyes and the agents. The councilman explained in it that business in Houston is no different from business in Panama, Colombia or Mexico.
"Three countries, all Latin, and Correa doesn't mention South America, does he?" asked Attanasio.
"No, sir," replied Reyes.
"Confronted with the option of telling them we don't do business the South American way, you chose to take their money?"
"To benefit yourself, you needed their money?"
"You could have told him that's not how it's done here. You could have called the Houston police, the FBI, a constable. You could have done something?"
"Yes, sir," answered Reyes passively.
Showing a touch of exasperation, Attanasio declared: "Sir, if not you, who?"
Reyes remained stone-faced and simply answered: "I didn't call the police."
Attanasio also showed the trademark caution he has displayed throughout the trial, sticking to the show-and-tell evidence accumulated by the FBI's recorders and cameras and avoiding risky gambits. Reyes earlier admitted to his own attorney that he had falsely claimed to have been shot in Vietnam. (Reyes actually underwent surgery for black lung disease upon his return from Vietnam.)
In his campaign literature, Reyes has long claimed he received two Purple Hearts for his war service. Holding as a trump card a certified copy of a Texas Senate Resolution honoring Reyes in 1995 for his Vietnam War service, including two Purple Hearts, the prosecutor asked Reyes whether he ever told anyone that he had won a Purple Heart. "No, sir," replied Reyes. But, uncertain that he could prove that Reyes had provided the information used in the resolution, the prosecutor dropped the matter and moved on.
Attanasio then confronted Reyes with arguably his most humiliating dialogue in hundreds of hours of FBI tape and video recordings, an exchange more fraught with pathos than the councilman's more dramatic -- and diffident -- acceptance of the satchel containing the $50,000 in fifty-dollar bills. A few weeks before that transaction, during a meeting with Molineiro, Reyes confessed he was broke and begged for travel money.
"They ask me, 'Why don't you have credit cards?' " Ben said on the tape. "Because I don't have credit. Hey, I don't even have a damn nickel."
"Help me," implored the man who was even then considered by observers outside his tight circle the most powerful member on Houston City Council. The once bright star in a once young generation of idealistic minority politicians had been reduced to panhandling from a snitch.
It was at that point that Reyes's eyes appeared to fill with tears for the first time.
Reyes can probably thank Councilman Michael Yarbrough for the guilty verdict. A lunch meeting at Carrabba's among Yarbrough, Reyes and Molineiro in January 1996, and a gathering of undercover agents and Yarbrough nearly two weeks later provide the most devastating counter to Reyes's defense.
On the way to the lunch, Reyes told Molineiro he would pass an envelope containing $1,500 to Yarbrough in the restaurant bathroom.
At the Carrabba's meeting, Yarbrough greets Reyes with, "I need a job, man." Reyes says, "We got it. You need a job. We need a leader. And, uh, in just a moment we go in the bathroom."
Taking it all in stride, Yarbrough answers, "Okay." Reyes tells him a story about how he learned the hard way on Council that one had to extort the maximum in payoffs from contractors seeking business with the city.
"First, he tried to hoodwink my ass," Reyes said in the story. "Giving me a little old bullshit, little old package." Reyes said he eventually got what he wanted. "And he got right. Them motherfuckers, if they can get away with a nickel, they'll give you a nickel." The two took the promised trip to the lavatory.
In his testimony last week, Reyes continued to insist that, when he and Yarbrough went in the bathroom, no cash was exchanged and that the obscene banter at the table had been a show to impress Molineiro.
"So Yarbrough understood grown men going in the bathroom together?" queried Attanasio. Reyes answered yes, although he had earlier testified he had never discussed passing cash in a restroom with the councilman.
"Was it just a coincidence he understood going in the men's room and your story about corruption?" continued the prosecutor.
"Coincidence?" mused Reyes. "Could have been."
For Reyes, the most damning of coincidences occurred 12 days later. Yarbrough accepted an envelope with $1,500 from agent Bob Dogium, alias Marcos Correa, at a Bering Drive apartment office. In that videotaped exchange, Yarbrough confirmed he earlier received $1,500 from Reyes -- exactly the amount Reyes had told the agents he gave Yarbrough in the Carrabba's bathroom.
Thus the bribery scheme, which Reyes claimed he crafted as a pretense to control his FBI investigators, had become all too real, at least in this instance. It was the lie that finally trapped the old gray fox of Houston politics.
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