Checkout Time at Hotel Six

It was clearly time for the five-year FBI investigation and subsequent legal circus once tagged Hotel Six to pack its tents and get outta Dodge. Defense attorney Dan Cogdell proved that by loosing the most repulsive line of the trial last week. Leaning into the faces of expectant jurors during closing arguments, Dapper Dan declared that the government not only embraced Julio Molineiro, the oily informant code-named El Juez (the judge), it also "stuck its tongue down his throat."

In a proceeding chock full of tapes of politicos using the coarsest language imaginable, the vision of the wily, cigar-chomping Chilean getting a deluxe federal French kiss hit the jury and audience in Judge David Hittner's courtroom like a big gob of spit. Gee, Dan, this observer wondered, why not go all the way and just say the government gave Julio a full Monica? A defense colleague later shrugged: "There were those of us who could have done without that remark."

With the line no doubt sticking in their throats, jurors began determining the fates of Councilmen Michael Yarbrough and John Castillo, and former councilman and judge John Peavy. The three are accused of taking cash bribes in a conspiracy masterminded by former councilman Ben Reyes at the behest of FBI undercover agents. The government hoped for a reprise of the second Sting trial last fall, when a hanging jury quickly convicted Reyes and former port commissioner Betti Maldonado of bribery and conspiracy.

Most everybody else in the case -- and the city -- would just as soon never see or hear another tape of Molineiro displaying his repertoire of what he charmingly terms "tricky tricks" in winning the confidence of the officials. But the current jurors ordered a veritable "best of" assortment of Sting tapes as they continued their deliberations into a second week. Because most of the panel's questions concerned Castillo, courthouse speculation had Yarbrough in greatest jeopardy, with Castillo having the best chance for acquittal.

During the long, tense wait for a verdict, the flamboyant Cogdell was unapologetic about his impromptu barb. "There's nothing subtle about me -- look at my credit record and my personal relationships. I've got to be myself." He says he had to compress a three-month trial into a 30-minute closing, and his court strategy is "to make your moment as large as you can." Bigger, in this case, may not have been better.

Cogdell's time was limited because client Peavy insisted on adding the legendary attorney Richard "Racehorse" Haynes to his defense team. Peavy, a former family-law court judge, is close to divorce lawyer Earle Lilly, who in turn favored adding Racehorse to the team. Haynes, who described himself to the jury as "long in the tooth," provided little visible assistance other than a comical effort to display a box of Monopoly money symbolizing the government's profligate spending on its investigation, code-named Operation Parallax.

Haynes also drew Hittner's ire when he tried to play the race card through the back door, by attacking racially tinged statements made by Reyes and Maldonado about Peavy. When Haynes attempted to extend the charge to apply to the government, Hittner shouted him down. The judge consistently refused to let the defense push the argument that the Sting was racially motivated against minority officials.

In the first Sting trial, Councilman Yarbrough chose to testify and got eviscerated by prosecutor Mike Attanasio. This time his new attorney, Robert Scardino, kept his client off the stand and focused on the government's ethics, rather than Yarbrough's.

"How do we want our government to function?" Scardino asked the jury. He accused the FBI of employing a criminal, like Molineiro, to dupe honest officials into accepting cash. "Do we want the government operating like this, not being accountable to folks like you? When our country was formed, this wasn't what we had in mind."

Yarbrough did not testify in his own defense, so Scardino was forced into tortuous twists of logic in trying to rebut the wealth of FBI tapes. He argued that Yarbrough could not have known Reyes was giving him cash from the undercover agents, an assertion undermined by Yarbrough's interview with FBI agents after the Sting became public [see "Leftover Lies?"]. Scardino argued that the cash Yarbrough took could be construed as a campaign contribution because it was within the city-mandated limit of $5,000. In fact, the municipal ordinance forbids cash contributions over $100.

The major difference in the testimony this time concerned the defendants' positions toward their former dock mates. In the first trial the defense lawyers had not a harsh word to say about Reyes and Maldonado. That changed when Hittner ordered a separate trial for Ben and Betti and they were convicted. Although the defense could have kept those convictions out of the testimony in this trial, the lawyers chose to air them as proof that their clients were victims of Bad Ben and Betti Boop, as well as tricky Julio and an overzealous FBI.

Prosecutor Attanasio quickly launched his counterstrike. "I know they want to run as fast as they can from their old City Council friend," declared Attanasio, turning to the defendants. "When Reyes picked these three over here, it was for a reason. Coincidence? No. A scheme to bribe public officials by the most corrupt of them all."

Attanasio finished off the gambit. "Why didn't they do something about that? They want to complain about FBI agent Ron Stern [the architect of the Sting] and Julio Molineiro. Well, who caught Reyes? Think about that."

Attanasio ended his three-trial Houston tour de force with almost awestruck reviews from his opponents. After watching the boyish-faced California native stylishly fillet Castillo, veteran attorney Bob Bennett called it the finest cross-examination by a prosecutor he had witnessed during three decades of legal practice. Unfortunately for Bennett, the victim just happened to be his own client.

Bennett's closing on behalf of Castillo reflected that view. He admitted his own client's testimony had "warts and holes."

"Yes, I would have done it differently," conceded Bennett, of Castillo's failure to return cash given him by Maldonado at the Hyatt Regency coffee shop. "John wishes he had called Betti Maldonado that night," said Bennett, ascribing Castillo's mistake to "a frailty of human judgment."

Attanasio had his own answer for that line. He told jurors, "You know what those frailties of human nature are called when you're not a powerful politician? They're called crimes."

Bennett's praise of Attanasio was returned by a prosecution source, who described the attorney's performance as the best of any of the Sting defense team. This source said if any defense lawyer wins an acquittal, Bennett most deserves it.

One reason for that view is a prosecution theory involving a tantalizing mystery of Hotel Six: Why did Castillo admit he received cash during a 1996 meeting with Reyes at the Ruggles bar, when the FBI had no tapes to confirm such a transfer?

Bennett cited that admission as proof of Castillo's honesty. What it may actually demonstrate is Bennett's integrity and class, not Castillo's.

According to this theory, Castillo initially admitted taking the money because he believed the FBI had videotaped him doing it. Then the government turned over all evidence to the defense and it became clear that there was no tape of the cash payment. For Castillo to change his story at that point, Bennett would have to knowingly allow his client to commit perjury -- something the government believes he was unwilling to do.

John Scott was the prosecution workhorse, smoothly laying out the case framework for the jury. But Attanasio was the main act, so much so that, like any good rock star, he acquired a lissome groupie. The out-of-work fashion designer (at least that's what she said) came to court every day endeavoring to make eye contact with her idol. When a reporter told her that the young prosecutor was unavailable because he was dating KPRC-Channel 2 anchor Susan Lennon, it seemed only to deepen the woman's interest in the proceeding.

If so, she'll be about the only person in Houston who can't wait for the final curtain to come ringing down on the City Hall Sting.

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck