Longform

Snitch Vs. Snitch

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Cogdell filed a complaint against Jones with the Department of Justice. "I don't trust her to be objective or reasonable," he says. "I think Gaynelle has a history of covering Gaynelle's back and little else."

"We had to go to somebody we could trust and who had no interest in the case at all," adds Schaffer.

That person, they decided, was Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes. To say the least, it's rare that a criminal-defense attorney thinks of the hard-nosed D.A. as an ally, but few question his integrity.

Early the next morning, Cogdell and Schaffer were in Holmes's office, and the D.A. was amused by their predicament. "They were pretty drove up," recalls Holmes. "And I remember thinking to myself that they should have just told the guy, 'Hell, no,' but after thinking about it overnight, they apparently decided to play undercover cop."

Nevertheless, Holmes agreed to help. The attorneys had arranged to meet Arroyo back at Houston's at 3 p.m. Holmes said he'd have them wired for sound, and would have his office supply them with $50,000 in "flash" money. The D.A. warned Schaffer that if he lost that cash, he'd face a long payroll deduction.

The attorneys returned to their offices -- and Arroyo called to change the game plan. Instead of Houston's at 3 p.m., he wanted to meet at Schaffer's office an hour later. Holmes' investigators hurriedly wired the law office.

When Arroyo arrived, Cogdell continued to seem offended by Arroyo's plan. He told the informant he still thought that the plan was a bad idea. With the tape rolling, Cogdell was careful to make it clear that all parties believed the $50,000 guaranteed that Arroyo wouldn't testify against their client, and that the deal had been Arroyo's idea. That said, he got up, brought the money into the room, and gave it to Schaffer. He then left the room.

Schaffer handed Arroyo the cash, and Arroyo headed out. In the hallway, detectives cuffed him and read him his rights, then hauled him to jail.

Fresh from the showers of Harris County's San Jacinto Street jail, but wearing a day's growth of stubble, Jorge Arroyo enters a small, glass-partitioned interview room with his hands cuffed behind his back -- a sign that, as an informant, he's being kept in administrative segregation, away from other prisoners, for his own good. Dressed in an orange jail uniform, he eyes his visitor cautiously, examining through the glass the business card that identifies the man as a reporter.

"I am in a very delicate situation," says Arroyo. He adds that he is not allowed to say anything to anyone about De La Garza without permission from Robert Stabe, the assistant U.S. attorney who is the lead prosecutor in De La Garza's case.

But asked about Schaffer, Cogdell and the $50,000, Arroyo's inhibitions quickly fade. He didn't suggest the bribe, he says. As he speaks, he pulls his cuffed hands from behind his back and makes a circular motion with his forefinger: It was the other way around. The deal, he says, was the lawyers' idea.

Since De La Garza's indictment, Arroyo has been working for a mining company in Brazil, where he lives with his wife and children. He says that last month, after he returned to Houston to testify against De La Garza, he learned that Schaffer had been trying to reach him by phone at his Brazilian number. So he returned Schaffer's call -- and did it at the local DEA headquarters, taping the conversation with a DEA recorder. That tape, Arroyo insists, proves that the bribe was Schaffer and Cogdell's idea.

So why is Arroyo in jail?
Arroyo shrugs. His face reads, "You figure it out."
Apparently Arroyo is telling the truth about recording his conversation with Schaffer. But according to Harris County first assistant district attorney Don Stricklin, nothing on the tape suggests wrongdoing by either of the lawyers. Stricklin also says Arroyo may have made a second tape -- possibly of the meeting in the restaurant -- but the prosecutor has neither seen nor heard it. Schaffer and Cogdell say they hope there is a tape of the meeting at the restaurant, that it would completely clear them of trying to pay Arroyo to disappear.

Such a tape might also clear them of an even more devious plot: setting up Arroyo to appear to solicit the money, thus ruining his credibility as a witness in the case against their client. Clearly, that's been the outcome of the affair. On the stand, if Arroyo says he didn't extort money from the lawyers, they have a tape to prove him a liar. And if he says he did extort the money, then he's obviously a crook. Either way, a jury isn't likely to believe his testimony against De La Garza.

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Steve McVicker