A Houston-bred attorney from a prominent local family wants to come home for the biggest day of his life: his upcoming 13-count federal racketeering trial. If the feds grant his change of venue request from Brownsville to Houston, Marc G. Rosenthal will bring one of the juiciest legal scandals in Texas history to town behind him.
For the past 22 years, Rosenthal has practiced in Austin as one of two founding shareholders in The Law Firm of Rosenthal and Watson. A federal indictment alleges that his firm is a RICO enterprise, and the burly Rosenthal, who proudly notes that he is a former Mr. Texas bodybuilder, also faces charges of racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud, aiding and abetting, tampering with proceedings, tampering with a witness, and extortion. He has pleaded not guilty.
A star witness for the U.S. government is former state 404th District Judge Abel C. Limas. The ex-jurist from Brownsville has already pleaded guilty to racketeering in an earlier proceeding and admitted receiving $340,000 in bribes from 2001 to 2008. He awaits sentencing, and is expected to testify against Rosenthal. A criminal ex-judge testifying for the prosecution? Fun! When was the last time that has happened here?
Rosenthal's defense attorneys, Ernesto Gamez Jr. and John Patrick Smith, have stated in court documents that their client cannot get a fair trial in Brownsville.
They claim that a "great and inescapable" "deluge of inflammatory material has infected the available jury pool" in Brownsville. They further argue that the media frenzy has only "ratcheted up" since Limas's conviction, and to prove it, cited universal anti-incumbent sentiment in a recent judicial election and numerous comments from readers at newspaper and TV Web sites showing widespread disgust with anyone connected to the disgraced Limas.
The lawyers added that Rosenthal also represents four plaintiffs who are entangled in litigation with the Valley Morning Star and the Brownsville Herald, two of the region's more prominent dailies. The attorneys allege that their client has already been tarred by the paper's coverage: "[a] past stream of prejudicial newspaper publicity from local papers is regretfully suspect."
In their case against Rosenthal, the feds claim that from 2005 to 2009, Rosenthal paid Limas to fix cases, paid funeral homes to furnish him with referrals and manipulated the Cameron County District Clerk's office to have his cases assigned to courts favoring his clients. It is further alleged that witnesses were paid to lie. (If all this is true, the Valley makes Louisiana look like Switzerland.)
The indictment mentions two specific civil cases: a 2007 lawsuit filed against the Union Pacific railroad and a 2008 case filed against Valley AirCare after a medical helicopter crashed. That case resulted in Rosenthal obtaining a $14 million settlement for plaintiff Alicia Sanchez, but she has since sued the attorney for more than $5 million. Recorded conversations have since come to light showing that ex-Judge Limas conspired to receive 10 percent of attorney's fees from that case.
The indictment also seeks to extract almost $6 million in fees Rosenthal is alleged to have obtained by illegal means.
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At least two Valley attorneys, including former state representative Jim Solis, have already lodged guilty pleas in the same case, as have several other courthouse figures. (Earlier this year, Cameron County district attorney Armando Villalobos was also indicted on alleged Limas-related shenanigans unrelated to Rosenthal. Despite a drive to remove him from office, he remains the county's top prosecutor.)
"The admissions of wrongdoing from the judge and others are disheartening," Rosenthal & Watson said in a statement last year. "But we were not aware of their improper activities. We expect to see Marc vindicated."
The feds are expected to file a motion opposing the change of venue later this week.
According to his online bio, Rosenthal's grandfather Harry Rosenthal founded Sysco Corporation, and Marc's father Allan later served as CEO. The bio goes on to say that his maternal grandfather Sol Rogers founded both Texas State Optical and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Marc Rosenthal graduated from South Texas College of Law in 1988 and got his start in the Houston office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges.