And the Sting Goes On

For a moment last Thursday, the scene in Judge David Hittner's
courtroom had more deja vu than even federal prosecutor Mike Attanasio anticipated. Mingling with the attorneys for the three defendants in the third and most likely final City Hall Sting trial was Ben Reyes's lawyer, Mike Ramsey. Never mind that his client was at that moment ensconced in a federal prison in Beaumont serving the first month of a nine-year sentence.

"Couldn't stay away?" inquired the prosecutor quizzically as he passed Ramsey on the way to his table.

"If I could try this case one more time, I'd get it right," crowed the silver-haired and -tongued Ramsey, beaming with his trademark "gonna chew you up and spit you out" grin.

Meanwhile, KHOU/Channel 11 artist Eve Myles sat in a courtroom pew busily applying her pastels to yet another Sting vignette, some of the characters so familiar she could have drawn them blindfolded. Myles, who could now stage a gallery opening with her portfolio from this case alone, says she has never illustrated a court three-peat before.

The first round of this marathon, dubbed "Hotel Six," ended in a mistrial nearly a year ago when jurors could not make up their minds about the innocence or guilt of the remaining five defendants. Hittner had already exonerated Ross Allyn, ruling that the government had not made a case against the lobbyist.

Reyes and former port commissioner Betti Maldonado served as an undercover agent's cash couriers in the yearlong investigation that began in 1995. They went to trial together and were convicted of bribery and conspiracy at the conclusion of Sting Two last fall.

Maldonado now prepares for her extended stay at the Carswell Air Force Base-turned-penal-facility in Fort Worth. She will join current resident and Ponzi scheme artist Teresa Rodriguez there later this month, making Carswell the only jail ever to house two former Houston Hispanic businesswomen of the year. Since they were onetime gal pals of former mayoral first lady Elyse Lanier, perhaps they can look forward to some consoling visits from their old friend. Elyse's favorite food-delivery service, Tony's At Home, could design a special jail menu for those occasions.

With the fate of half the Hotel Six decided, the climactic Round Three features current Councilmen Michael Yarbrough and John Castillo and former councilman and judge John Peavy. They are accused of taking cash bribes ladled out by Reyes, Maldonado or federal undercover agents posing as representatives of the sham Cayman Group, which sought a cut of the downtown convention center hotel contract.

If Hotel Six was a draw and Sting Two a slam dunk for the justice department, then the current trial offers the last chance for the hometown boys to even the score. And there are several factors that make the job of Attanasio and fellow prosecutor John Scott much more difficult and the prospect of another federal sweep unlikely.

The defendant most at risk is clearly Yarbrough. He has the starring role in the FBI's "tape of tapes." Not only is he seen and heard confirming that he received $1,500 from Reyes, but he then takes $1,500 more from FBI special agent Bob Dogium. Yarbrough is also a mostly passive participant in one of the more florid conversations of the investigation, a lunchtime chat at Carrabba's. It begins with Yarbrough declaring, "I need a job" and ends in a profanity-laced conversation in which Reyes instructs the rookie councilman in the fine art of shaking down city contractors.

Yarbrough has a new legal team, headed by white-haired criminal attorney Robert Scardino, an aggressive lawyer with a folksy country-boy approach. "Almost like a cuttin' horse in a pen with the cows" is how Scardino described the behavior of the undercover agents as they manipulated Yarbrough into admitting he had received money from Reyes. As for that stuff about needing a job, Scardino explained in his opening argument that Yarbrough had been poking fun at Reyes because he had just vacated his seat on City Council. And the confirmation of a bribe was really Yarbrough's referring to legitimate campaign contributions he'd received.

The problem with those explanations is that Yarbrough showed no reticence about taking cash from the agent on camera, and he told Reyes on tape, "I need a job" — not "you need a job." Personal pronouns aside, Scardino definitely has his job cut out for himself.

Peavy, too, has a new lawyer, although it remains to be seen how much prime time Richard "Racehorse" Haynes logs in his defense. Judge Hittner allowed Haynes to join the defense just before the trial got under way but ordered attorney Dan Cogdell to continue as lead attorney. Cogdell, like Scardino, loves to play the court hayseed, enough so that a plate of straw might be included at the defense table for both to chew on during their deliveries. In defending Peavy, the former family court jurist, Cogdell quickly incurred Hittner's ire for continually referring to his client as "judge," a title Hittner had forbidden in the trial.

Unlike Scardino, Cogdell and Haynes are blessed with a client who spoke largely in monosyllabic words on the undercover tapes and who allegedly took cash payments in circumstances far more muddied than Yarbrough's.

Reyes claimed he gave Peavy money in a bathroom at the Wyndham Warwick, but agents did not witness the transfer. In another incident, Peavy accepted an envelope containing cash, but only after it was pressed upon him by a federal agent in a restaurant parking lot.

In his opening statement to jurors, Cogdell introduced a new wrinkle into his defense by incorporating Reyes as one of the villains.

Cogdell snatched up a government photo of Reyes on display in the courtroom and declared that Attanasio was correct — "dead bang right" — about the case being one of greed and corruption.

However, Cogdell said the ones greedy and corrupt were FBI undercover informant Julio Molineiro and "to a lesser extent, Ben Reyes."

"What he became later in this operation, I'm not here to explain or justify," Cogdell said. He told jurors his client knew nothing of the questionable private sides of Reyes and Maldonado, and thought he was receiving campaign contributions rather than bribes.

Peavy's biggest problem may be his visit to political consultant Sue Walden after the investigation became public. He presented an envelope of new bills to the political consultant and tried to get her to return it to the FBI. Walden refused and advised him to consult a lawyer. Cogdell contends that attorney David Berg then advised Peavy that he faced only a minor violation of campaign laws and didn't need to return the money.

However, if Peavy had already spent the original bills — federal agents recorded the serial numbers — he could not return the money without undermining his claim that he thought it was a legal campaign contribution. In that case, Berg's advice may have been the only option for Peavy to follow while maintaining his innocence.

The defendant who hasn't added lawyers or changed the thrust of his defense is Councilman John Castillo, who admits he took money from Reyes but claims it was the payback of an old debt rather than a bribe.

As for a second packet of cash given to Castillo by Maldonado, he claims it was a campaign contribution he simply forgot to return. He says he gave it to his lawyer, Frumencio Reyes, who put it in a safe after the investigation went public. Castillo claims he had already spent some of the money at a scholarship fund-raiser trying to win the title of "King Ugly," certainly a laudable use for an alleged bribe.

While Castillo attorney Robert Bennett attacked Frumencio Reyes in his opening argument for advising Castillo not to return the money, Castillo really owes his former attorney a debt of gratitude. Because some of the bills produced from Reyes's safe were minted after the investigation became public, it's impossible to prove whether it was Castillo or his lawyer who spent and then replaced a portion of the money.

The moral: A bad lawyer can make a good defense.
What the defendants in this trial really have going for them is that none of them asked for the payoffs which were forced upon them. The second trial documented Ben Reyes's continuous demands and ultimate receipt of $50,000, as well as Maldonado's giddy enthusiasm for the payoff effort. This time around, the characters, and the criminal allegations, come across as petty and contrived.

It's not going to be easy to convince a jury that the remaining defendants deserve conviction and prison for simply taking what was pressed into their hands under circumstances far less clear-cut than Ben's damning acceptance of that bag of loot.

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck