Ring Around the Sting
The names that have surfaced thus far in the FBI sting at the ReBates Hotel fit neatly into a puzzle centered around former city councilman Ben Reyes. Described by his attorney, Mike Ramsey, as "the most deeply involved in this," Reyes has been pursued by the law before but has always escaped relatively unscathed. All that could be hung on him after a lengthy investigation by District Attorney Johnny Holmes back in 1991 were probated misdemeanors for campaign violations and the theft of a magnolia tree. Term-limited out of the Council seat he held for 16 years and having undergone a recent -- and expensive -- divorce from wife Cammie, Reyes reportedly was in tight financial straits and might have presented a vulnerable target for those undercover FBI agents posing as millionaire investors of the Cayman Group.
Even before leaving Council in early January, Reyes was deeply involved in promoting developer Wayne Duddlesten's bid to build a city-subsidized hotel, as were lobbyist/publicist/Port Commissioner Betti Maldonado, Councilman John Castillo and lawyer Isaias Torres. Castillo is a former longtime aide and associate of Reyes who succeeded him on Council; Torres, who until last month was on the board of the Texas Ethics Commission, is the lawyer who represented the bogus Cayman Group investors who supposedly wanted an equity share of the Duddlesten hotel.
Maldonado is a former Channel 8 television personality who latched on to Bob Lanier's first mayoral campaign through her then-boyfriend, political consultant Marc Campos, one of Lanier's earliest Hispanic boosters. Maldonado was initially a Kathy Whitmire contributor in that 1991 race. But once aboard with Lanier, she bonded closely with the future mayor and most especially his wife, Elyse. Maldonado wound up as master of ceremonies at Lanier's first inaugural and became a U.S. citizen during a ceremony later that year in the back yard of the Laniers' River Oaks mansion. Eventually, she was named as Lanier's "NAFTA liaison" -- an appointment that smacked of a conflict of interest, since at the time she also was working with Campos on a contract with the government of Mexico to promote the trade treaty. She gave up the NAFTA post for a Lanier-backed appointment to replace Michael Solar as a Houston port commissioner in 1994.
Although Reyes nominated Maldonado to the port commission, the earliest indication that she had developed a working relationship with the councilman came earlier that year when she emceed a birthday party fundraiser at Brady's Landing for Reyes' second race against Congressman Gene Green. Maldonado and Campos were working for Reyes in that campaign, largely because of Green's opposition to NAFTA.
After her ascension to the port commission, Maldonado went in pursuit of a variety of work, including a share of the contract with Mexico still held by Campos, who by then was no longer romantically involved with Maldonado. Campos claims that Maldonado pressured him to give her a cut of the contract and suggested he funnel the money to her brother Juan if he didn't want to give it to her directly. Campos says he refused and complained directly to the mayor's office about Maldonado's actions, with no results. (Maldonado did not deny the scenario outlined by Campos when the Press questioned her about it in 1994.) More recently, Maldonado worked on behalf of the golf course privatization bid by the Lopez Group -- a proposal also vigorously pushed by Reyes. (See "It's a Gimme!" in the January 11 Press.)
The sting may now have put Maldonado and Reyes at loggerheads. While Reyes has claimed he was unaware of the FBI role in the Cayman Group until last week, a source close to Maldonado notes that Reyes cleaned out the Galleria-area office he shared with the would-be hotel investors a month ago, but never alerted Maldonado. A former Reyes' Council aide, Ross Allyn, also departed the office at the same time. Allyn did not return a phone call from The Insider.
Isaias Torres first received public notice for representing Hispanics in a Supreme Court case fighting the denial of public education to the children of illegal immigrants. In the late eighties, he was included as a minority subcontractor on the Heard Goggan law firm's tax collection contract with HISD, thanks to the assistance of then-trustee Tina Reyes, Ben's sister. Later, with the support of then-councilman Reyes, Torres assumed the same role in the city's tax-collection pact with the Calame Linebarger firm. Torres also has close ties with Felix Fraga and Gracie Saenz and hosted a fundraiser for Fraga during the councilman's ill-fated run against Green in the March Democratic primary. Torres later complained that no one seemed to want to give money to Fraga, a problem the undercover FBI agents apparently addressed.
Perhaps the most surprising name to arise in connection with the sting is that of Berta Flores, an early Lanier supporter and member of his transition team who never associated with Reyes and had a distinct antipathy to Maldonado. Flores was regarded by Campos and Maldonado as something of a flake, which makes her supposed role in connecting the bogus investors of the Cayman Group to Reyes all the more puzzling. Flores also was an avid Green supporter against Reyes. She isn't talking, but reportedly has told associates that her contacts with Reyes were all by phone.
Consultant Campos, who was hired by Duddlesten rival JMB/Urban Development in the final week of the fight to win the Council's approval for JMB's hotel proposal, was the first to publicly question the credentials of the then-unnamed Hispanic investors on the Duddlesten team who were being touted by Torres, Reyes and Maldonado. He says the vagueness of their identities put him on alert. "In the back of my mind, any time you're talking about Miami or Latin America business people you never heard of, I gotta think drug dealers," reasons Campos. While Maldonado attorney Dick DeGuerin accuses the FBI of creating corruption where there was none, Campos figures anyone with a nose could smell smoke long before the feds lit the match. "They play fast and loose, in my opinion," Campos says of former girlfriend Maldonado and former boss Reyes. "If I can figure it out, other folks can figure it out. And sooner or later this stuff is going to get put out in front of the feds' doorstep. C'mon, they office a few blocks from City Hall.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.