Scenes from a Sting
Tony Reyes lingered at the Galleria-area Hunan's Restaurant after a business lunch he had with his brother, Councilman Ben Reyes, Ben's son Albert, and Rosalie Brockman, the councilman's girlfriend. It was the afternoon of November 3, 1995, less than two months before term limits would force Ben Reyes to give up his seat after 16 years and eight municipal campaigns.
Also at the table that day was FBI informant Julio Molineiro, using the alias Carlos Montero. Molineiro was pretending to be a South American businessman heading a sham investment company called the Cayman Group. As the point man in an FBI public-corruption sting targeting Reyes, the informant was searching for the councilman's weak points. He was also wearing a body mike that, unbeknownst to the group, was picking up every word.
Tony and Molineiro stayed on at the restaurant for a heart-to-heart after the others left. Tony was upset with Ben, and he picked the worst possible confidant before whom to unfurl the family's dirty laundry.
After an introductory meeting four months earlier, Councilman Reyes had sent Molineiro to work with Tony and another brother, Greg, on a plan to help the Cayman Group win a role in developer Wayne Duddlesten's downtown convention-center hotel project. At first it was to be as builder and operator of the hotel's parking garage, described by Ben as "a fucking cash cow."
But Ben's vision had expanded, and now he was aiming at forcing Duddlesten to give the Cayman Group -- and Reyes as a silent partner -- an equity ownership in the hotel. He had become impatient with delays in securing the Cayman Group's support -- and cash -- and now was taking direct control of the scheme before he left City Council. The night before the Hunan's lunch, he had bluntly warned Tony to get out of the way. Henceforth, the Cayman Group investors were to deal with Ben directly.
Tony Reyes was angry, and alarmed. If Ben were linked to the effort while he was still voting on Council, his brother knew they all could be in legal trouble.
"My brother is not using his damn head, and he doesn't listen, which is the worst thing," Tony confided to Molineiro. "I don't know why all of a sudden he has changed in the last two weeks, [but] he has changed a lot.... He's getting too desperate. That's what scares me, shit!"
While Tony Reyes had no idea that Molineiro was actually the family's worst nightmare, he sensed that something was wrong. "He really shouldn't have had that talk with you with everybody here," Tony told Molineiro after the lunch, and then added, "there are many people right now who would like to take a shot at him to knock him down, knock him down good."
Tony told Molineiro he had decided to get out of the deal completely. Tony and Greg had participated in many other ventures capitalizing on city contracts their brother had provided via his influence on Council. They were well versed in the difference between a shady but legal enterprise and an illegal one, because they had almost been ensnared in previous law-enforcement probes of several of those deals.
The smell emanating from the Cayman Group was too strong even for Tony, a veteran at skirting the line. Trying to make Molineiro understand his decision to defect, Tony pleaded: "I can't get in trouble. I have a family and everything."
Tony complained that Ben was no businessman, and tended to run enterprises like they were political campaigns. Tony even let the agent in on an old Reyes family secret, one that had become an unconfirmed political legend in Houston over the years.
In the mid-'70s, Ben had been given as a political payoff a business, Jones Lumber, that had once been part of the financial empire owned by the Houston Endowment foundation, which also operated the Houston Chronicle. When Reyes took over the premises for a minimal purchase price, he found the business freshly stocked with a rich inventory of lumber that was his for free.
"They gave him a business, as a gift, and he let it go to hell, because he was a politician," Reyes told Molineiro. Of course, Tony continued, his brother was also accused of using the lumberyard to get the business of contractors whom he helped get city business.
"Shit," exclaimed Tony, "we have all learned a lot with regards to that."
Perhaps one Reyes had absorbed the lesson that public office and city contracts are an explosive mix. But another Reyes, deep in the morass of personal and financial turmoil, had either never learned it or had simply forgotten.
If the first two weeks of the Hotel Six City Hall bribery-conspiracy trial have proved nothing else, the seemingly endless stream of undercover audio and video tapes has established Ben Reyes and his clan as the nineties' most politically dysfunctional family in Houston.
Reyes is at the center of the federal prosecutors' case against him and five other City Hall insiders, including two current councilmembers: Reyes's successor, John Castillo, and Michael Yarbrough. Also indicted are former councilman John Peavy, former port commissioner Betti Maldonado and former Reyes aide and lobbyist Ross Allyn. Reyes is accused of orchestrating the alleged bribery of the three councilmembers, while Maldonado and Allyn are charged with helping him carry out the scheme.
All of the defendants have their own defenses and stories to tell, but the main plot line of the Hotel Six sting is the fall of the most dominant figure in the history of Houston minority politics -- Ben Torres Reyes, a Vietnam vet who became the first Hispanic state legislator from Houston and the first Hispanic to win a City Council seat. But Hotel Six is not about that glorious beginning, but rather Reyes's seedy finish.
The 48-year-old Reyes had picked a very bad time to have a midlife crisis in 1995. He had divorced his wife of three decades, Cammie, and taken up with engineer Rosalie Ortega Brockman, a slim brunette woman who had gotten a position in the billion-dollar Greater Houston Wastewater Program supervising the performance of minority subcontractors. The two were working together to set up a company they could run using Ben's political contacts and Brockman's connections in the wastewater program. In fact, co-workers of Brockman say Ben had practically moved into the wastewater program office before he left City Council.
"He's soon going to marry this woman," Tony Reyes told the agent after that lunch at Hunan's. "Businesses should be between businesspeople ... not girlfriends or sweethearts. Everybody gets upset when he brings this damn woman with him. They get mad."
Ben Reyes was also nearly broke at the time. He complained to Molineiro at another lunch that he was about to leave for Mexico to cut a business deal, but had no expense money.
"They ask me, why don't you have credit cards?" asked Ben rhetorically, and then answered, "Because I don't have credit. Hey, I don't even have a damn nickel." Reyes had previously declared bankruptcy.
Of course, allowed Reyes, life could be worse. "As long as my dick doesn't fail me," Reyes told the informant, "we'll be okay. Once your dick fails, motherfucker, there's no life left then."
From the moment he took control of the Cayman Group contacts, Reyes pressed Molineiro and another undercover agent, Bob Dogium, alias Marcos Correa, for cash to purchase distressed city properties that he could resell for big profits. The agents repeatedly refused to go along with that proposal, since their aim was to build a case against Reyes for accepting bribes to exchange for using his influence in Council on their behalf. However, Molineiro promised he would produce $50,000 that Reyes could use for his own purposes.
The climax to that phase of the sting came on the afternoon of December 1, when Reyes visited the westside apartment the FBI had set up for Molineiro, complete with two video cameras to film transactions.
Reyes entered the apartment, plopped down in a chair and, as is customary in Latin business transactions, talked for a good while about everything but the matter at hand. He rambled on about the possibilities of the Cayman Group investing with the French wastewater giant PSG, which at that time was angling to build and operate water facilities for the city of Houston.
"We're going to do the financing," Reyes told Molineiro. "And the French agree we should be a part of them. That's why we're fighting the proposal of these other people."
Eventually the subject turned to the cash. Molineiro, obviously following the FBI script, tried to make it very clear that the payoff was going to buy help in winning the hotel project, not some other business, as Reyes's attorney would later claim.
"I'm not helping you because I like you, and you're a super friend," purred Molineiro. "I'm helping myself, because if this hotel project comes through, I'm going to make a whole bunch of money."
With that, the agent placed the satchel of cash in front of the councilman. The only sound in the room was a loud "ah" from Reyes. "This is a present from a friend," Molineiro cracked, "so don't lose it."
Reyes didn't bother to count the money, saying, "That's fine, Daddy, I'll check it later." Reyes stood up to leave, and prepared to embrace his benefactor.
"Thank you, huh. A big hug."
The most distasteful image of Reyes culled from the Hotel Six tapes is not that of him carrying off a bag of cash. It's not even an illegal act. Rather, it is the councilman at his boorish worst, obscenely bragging about his power to influence other politicians, and embellishing his account with each successive conversation.
On December 13, 1995, the councilman met with Molineiro at his favorite Italian restaurant, Carrabba's on Kirby. The matter at hand was figuring out how City Council could vote on the downtown hotel project before Reyes left office on January 2. The problem was that Texas Attorney General Dan Morales had not issued an opinion on whether the Duddlesten project could utilize tax subsidies under a state law that clearly permitted them for publicly owned facilities. Reyes had consulted with Mayor Bob Lanier and was told to press Morales to get a favorable opinion.
Morales called the restaurant while Reyes and Molineiro were meeting, and the agent's tape caught the councilman's side of the conversation.
Reyes immediately went to work selling Duddlesten to the A.G. "He's a good, solid guy, man," Reyes told Morales. "Anything we can do down the road to make things better for our people, the guy is going to be there." Reyes hung up, then told Molineiro that Morales had promised to issue the opinion. In fact, Morales released a favorable ruling for Duddlesten two days later.
But that wasn't the telling part of the tape. Within minutes, Reyes was on the phone to associates, bragging, cursing and embellishing the conversation with Morales to the point where it was hardly recognizable.
"Hey, Mr. Wayne," Reyes told Duddlesten. "I'm working my ass off, man.... I feel like a pair of panties on a whore.... I said 'let me tell you what, Wayne Duddlesten is the strongest motherfucker in town. He's ten times stronger than [Vinson and Elkins, the backer of the rival hotel proposal]." Of course Reyes had said no such thing. As one courtroom observer marveled as the tape played, "What a bullshitter!"
At Carrabba's, the councilman's tongue seemed indeed out of control, as he laid out for Molineiro how he planned to squeeze developer Duddlesten for a bigger share of the hotel project. "It's going to get to the point where he's going to need our damn help," chortled Reyes, "and that's where he'll let it all go.... At that point we'll tell him, look Daddy, give us a letter saying you are going to give us this this and that, and we'll assure you that this damn [Felix Fraga] and this bastard Peavy are going to be with you." Behind Reyes's words, the Christmas hymn "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" played on the restaurant sound system.
As the tape of that conversation rolled in Judge David Hittner's courtroom three years later, former councilman John Peavy sat not more than five feet away from Reyes at the defense bench, accused of bribery and conspiracy. The two men did not look at each other.
The tape ended, and there was a bit of stunned silence in the courtroom, partially a feeling of decompression from the coarseness of the conversation, and perhaps in some quarters sorrow at the spectacle of what one of Houston's best and brightest young politicos became in the course of three decades.
The jury will have to decide if he's a criminal, but no one who heard that tape could doubt Ben Reyes had degenerated into a buffoon.
Contact Tim Fleck at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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