On January 18, 1990, Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was enjoying a pipe of crack cocaine in a room at the Vista International Hotel when FBI agent Ron Stern burst through the door.
Barry, who had been lured to the hotel room by an ex-girlfriend working undercover with the FBI, was caught in the act on videotape and subsequently convicted of cocaine possession after a racially charged ten-week trial. During the proceedings, Barry's attorney alleged that Stern -- who had helped coordinate the federal government's investigation of Barry -- was part of a special FBI "assault force" that went about the country targeting minority politicians.
The Justice Department denied the allegation and Barry's lawyer never proved it. But one thing is undeniable: Stern has surfaced again as a leading player in an FBI sting that appears to have ensnared minority politicians -- this time at Houston City Hall -- and once again his tactics are stirring controversy.
Stern's not the only government figure in the local sting who's made his reputation by nailing a minority politico: Mike Attanasio, an assistant U.S. attorney with the Justice Department's Washington-based public integrity division, successfully tried former San Antonio Congressman Albert Bustamante on racketeering and influence-peddling charges in 1993, effectively ending Bustamante's career. Attanasio is directing the prosecution end of the local sting.
According to defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, it was Stern who pressured DeGuerin's client, Port Commissioner Betti Maldonado, into cooperating with the FBI three weeks ago after it was revealed to Maldonado that the South American "investors" who had hired her to lobby black and Hispanic councilmembers were actually undercover agents. DeGuerin says the two men, who went by the names Carlos Montero and Marcos Correa, were seeking a piece of developer Wayne Duddlesten's deal to build a city-subsidized hotel near the Brown Convention Center, and they had directed Maldonado to give "campaign contributions" to councilmembers to ensure that a clause guaranteeing them a stake in the project was inserted in Duddlesten's final contract with the city. Maldonado has said that some of her meetings with councilmembers at the Hyatt Regency coffee shop were videotaped by the FBI.
After initially agreeing to play along with Stern, though, Maldonado had second thoughts and blew the whistle on at least one part of the FBI operation by retaining DeGuerin and fellow defense attorney Ron Woods, the former U.S. attorney for the Houston area.
Woods, whose current client roster includes accused Oklahoma City bombing suspect Terry Nichols, knows a thing or two about sting operations: as an assistant U.S. attorney, he unsuccessfully prosecuted the bribery case against Texas House Speaker Billy Clayton that grew out of the FBI's Brilab operation.
Woods says that in his years as a federal prosecutor he was unaware of any supposed FBI "strike force" against minority politicians, but in retrospect, he finds "it was always suspicious that an uncommon number of minority individuals were getting caught up in these political corruption investigations."
Stern apparently specializes in sting operations and was transferred to Houston shortly after the conclusion of the Barry case in 1990. Although the allegation was never raised before the jury in the Barry trial, the D.C. mayor's lawyer, the since-deceased R. Kenneth Mundy, claimed Stern also had played a major role in an investigation of alleged drug use by black Georgia politicians Julian Bond and Andrew Young while Stern was stationed in the FBI's Atlanta office.
But one writer who observed the Barry trial closely dismisses as "ridiculous" the suggestion that Stern's work is racially motivated.
In his book Marion Barry: The Politics of Race, author Jonathan I.Z. Agronsky argues that Stern was only peripherally involved in the FBI's investigation of Bond and Young. Agronsky also reports that Stern, while working out of Atlanta, was involved in "Operation Nickelride," an FBI probe of corruption by a white deputy in the Fulton County Sheriff's Department.
"Stern is a straight-shooting, flag-waving, all-American guy," says Agronsky. "He sees his job as putting away the bad guys."
During Barry's trail, Mundy argued that Stern and his fellow agents had entrapped the mayor by having Barry's ex-girlfriend encourage him to meet her at the hotel where he was arrested, rather than waiting to see if Barry himself would suggest the rendezvous. When cross-examined about that point by Mundy, Stern maintained that he and other agents were simply "affording Mr. Barry an opportunity to violate the law."
Although neither Maldonado nor any councilmember has been indicted, DeGuerin already has accused the FBI of trying to manufacture rather than uncover crimes at City Hall.
It will be the responsibility of the boyish-looking Attanasio to decide if enough evidence has been uncovered in the sting to present to a grand jury, or if the FBI went too far in its pursuit of councilmembers.
"The main thing I'm doing right now is watching to see if this guy runs in and indicts right away," says Woods. "Because if you rely on what the FBI tells you is on the tapes, you can get burned in court. If he rushes in and indicts in a week or two, then we'll know he's not very experienced."
At least one lawyer who's battled Attanasio in court will vouch for the experience -- and the ability -- of the young prosecutor, a Stanford law grad whose father is an agent for several professional baseball players.
"You won't find many trial lawyers with the Justice Department any better than he is," says San Antonio attorney A.L. Herndon. "He'll go a long way. He's a real good-looking boy, and jurors believe him."
A federal jury in San Antonio certainly believed Attanasio when it convicted Herndon client Bustamante three years ago. Bustamante's wife, Rebecca, was also charged in that case for allegedly doing no work in return for the $280,000 she received from Heard, Goggan, Blair & Williams for helping the law firm land delinquent-tax collection contracts with the city of San Antonio and a school district. Rebecca Bustamante -- who stood trial alongside her husband -- was acquitted of all charges.
Herndon rejects the notion that the Bustamantes' ethnicity had anything to do with their prosecution. "Attanasio and I had a terrible fight in the courtroom," the lawyer recalls. "I called him names -- we were scratching and clawing. But racism was not one of his hang-ups."
For his successful prosecution of Bustamante, Attanasio was rewarded with one of the Justice Department's highest internal honors. A former colleague also credits Attanasio with securing a conviction in the government's bribery case against the owner of Kentucky's Green River Coal Company last December.
"The government won the case because of his closing argument," says Scott Cox, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Kentucky who is now in private practice.
Cox says Attanasio is one of a select group of federal attorneys who travel around the country prosecuting corruption cases against public officials. Because the Justice Department wants those cases to be tried in a uniform manner, it always assigns someone from its Washington office to them.
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"In these high-profile cases, [the Justice Department] likes to have one of their attorneys at least assisting the local U.S. attorney's office," says Cox. "They want to keep control over those types of cases. They don't ever want to be accused of coming after someone because they are a Republican or a Democrat, or because you're black or you're white. Don't accuse Mike Attanasio of having a grudge against these people. He doesn't know them from Muhammad Ali."
Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes also cautions against jumping to conclusions about the scope and motivation of the federal investigation. Holmes indicates that he has knowledge that it wasn't aimed solely at black and Hispanic councilmembers.
"If what [the government] is doing is picking on someone just because of their ethnicity, I think that's subject to questionable government process," says the district attorney. "But we don't know that. And to fan the flames without the facts is just going to make you look foolish when the facts come out -- if you're wrong."
"This investigation," Holmes adds without elaborating, "has been going on a long, long time.