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Spring Time for Ben and Betti?

HISD's Abbott: Whether the questions are from Congress or the media, mum's the word about Paige.
Phillippe Diederich/Photo illustration by Monica F

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.

Attanasio is unsympathetic to the argument that Maldonado has suffered enough and should be freed.

"Her sentence is substantially less than [Ben's], but she's supposed to serve it just like everybody else," says the former prosecutor. "There are countless young women in prison for different kinds of offenses … who aren't seeking and certainly aren't going to get any kind of special treatment."

Although the odds are increasingly long that the president will commute the sentences of Reyes and Maldonado, their Houston supporters are conducting a last-ditch letter-writing campaign to convince Clinton to act.

In an e-mail sent to dozens of prominent area business and political leaders last week, attorney and former councilwoman Gracie Saenz asked recipients to use an enclosed form letter and send it on to the president.

"I feel that their controversial sentences were very harsh," reads the suggested script. "I feel that [Reyes and Maldonado] have paid their debt to society. I respectfully request that you support the wishes of many people in this community and grant Ms. Maldonado and Mr. Reyes a commutation of their sentences."

Saenz has been active in Maldonado's defense since Betti was indicted, and helped organize a prayer group on her behalf.

"I definitely am very supportive of Betti and Ben," says Saenz, who cites "their past history and their community service."

Asked whether the connection to Reyes would hurt her friend, Saenz replied, "I think it is going to be up to people to decide whether to do letters for both of them, or for either one. I guess the reality is the president will have to make that decision."

At HISD, Silence (About Paige) Is Golden

If any of the thousands of HISD administrators, teachers and employees are gutsy enough to have independent opinions about departing Superintendent Rod Paige, district superflack Terry Abbott has some words of advice. After the Associated Press began making inquiries with district staff to try to get unrehearsed comments about President-elect George W. Bush's pick for secretary of education, Abbott fired off this e-mail to his bureaucracy:

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2001

Subject: AP call

FYI for everyone:

It is VITALLY IMPORTANT that no one in the district answer any questions from press about Dr. Paige. All those questions must be referred to Lindsey Kozberg at the Bush Cheney Transition office, 202 513 7595. Also, vitally important is that no one here submit any information directly to Congress. If we have any requests for information about Dr. Paige or HISD from Congress, please funnel those requests through me. You can still get me at my pager at 800 535-2423.

Thanks for your help during these busy times.

Terry

Note to the Washington press corps: If Terry does ride on Paige's shoulder to D.C. as his public relations parrot, just think how much fun covering the Department of Education will be for the next four years. Insider readers who'd like to tell Abbott what they think of his concept of free communications can try him at his pager, as long as the number lasts.


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