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Tuesday, December 15, 1998

Former Houston officials found guilty in City Hall bribery trial

HOUSTON (AP) -- Seven months after a hung jury forced a mistrial, two former Houston political figures were found guilty Monday of cooperating with FBI operatives in a bribery sting.

Former Houston City Councilman Ben Reyes could face up to 50 years in prison when U.S. District Judge David Hittner announces punishment Feb. 24. Reyes was convicted on four counts of bribery and one count of mail fraud and conspiracy.

Former Port Commissioner Betti Maldonado could face up to 25 years on one count of conspiracy and two counts of bribery. However, both probably will be sentenced to a fraction of the maximums.

Unlike the first trial, in which jurors deadlocked May 21 after nearly five days of deliberations, this panel took just six hours to convict the pair on all charges.

Michael Ramsey, Reyes' attorney, appeared stunned as he addressed reporters.

"I don't know how to explain a verdict as quick as that one," Ramsey said, with Reyes at his side. "It's not for me to second-guess juries. It is for me to appeal, however, and that is what I'll do."

Maldonado attorney Dick DeGuerin, who also looked dumbfounded afterward, likewise vowed an appeal.

"I'm shocked and very, very disappointed," DeGuerin said. "This is not the end of the story by any means."

Neither defendant had any immediate comment. Prosecutors, however, were pleased with the jury's quick, decisive action.

"The verdict hopefully sends a message about honesty and integrity in government at all levels," federal prosecutor Mike Attanasio said.

As in the first trial, jurors heard Reyes brag on tape about getting rich from buying civic leaders and watched video of Ms. Maldonado nervously handing an envelope supposedly containing $3,000 to Councilman John Castillo.

But they also heard Reyes repeatedly tell undercover FBI agents he didn't expect to profit from a convention center hotel that lay at the center of the FBI sting. The panel also heard what the defense claimed to be Ms. Maldonado retreating from an undercover FBI agent who was pressuring her to pass along cash.

Prosecutors say Reyes intended to get rich off the hotel project. FBI informant Julio Molineiro, posing as a representative for offshore investors, tapped Reyes as a middleman for the fake bribes.

In one case, prosecutors say Reyes took a $50,000 bribe in December 1995 while still a councilman. He claims it was a loan, and defense lawyers have played up the fact that Molineiro is heard on tape calling the cash a "loan."

Reyes was convicted of paying off Castillo, Councilman Michael Yarbrough and former Councilman John Peavy Jr., all codefendants in the first trial. Ms. Maldonado was convicted of plotting to bribe Castillo and Yarbrough.

Despite the convictions, Castillo said Monday he still intends to fight the charges.

"I know that in my heart and in my mind I have not violated any laws," said Castillo, who faces retrial next year. "I'm not guilty of any wrongdoing and I will fight this vigorously."

Ms. Maldonado's defense was that she naively believed the money involved was legitimate campaign funding.

Defense attorneys also hammered the credibility of Molineiro, a career informant who has a checkered legal past of his own. The noted Molineiro had convictions for robbery, fraud and embezzlement in Chile and Paraguay and several other outstanding warrants for his arrest in those countries.

The defense also has accused federal authorities of targeting minorities politicians, because all five defendants are either black or Hispanic. Hittner acquitted the only white non-Hispanic defendant, lobbyist Ross Allyn, during the first trial.

Ramsey implied that the non-Hispanic makeup of both juries will play a part in the appellate process.

"It's a problem with the system, and maybe this is the case that will solve it. Who knows?" Ramsey said.


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