BROWNSVILLE — A federal judge on Thursday allowed attorneys for the Valley Morning Star to intervene in the Armando Villalobos corruption case, in their efforts to prevent a Star reporter from potentially being called as a witness.
Attorneys for the newspaper and its parent company, AIM Media Texas, asked U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen to suppress an FBI wiretap recording of a telephone conversation between former state District Judge Abel C. Limas and reporter Emma Perez-Treviño.
A telephone call between the reporter and Limas was recorded on Feb. 22, 2008, and included discussion about the case of convicted murderer Amit Livingston, according to defense court records.
The government maintains that the conversation between Limas and the reporter is not pertinent to the corruption cases that ensued from the Limas investigation.
However, a motion filed by attorneys for defendant Villalobos, the former Cameron County district attorney, has raised the question of whether the recording could be introduced as exculpatory evidence in Villalobos’ trial.
On Thursday, the Star’s attorney Jeffery Nobles argued before Hanen that suppressing the recording was a First Amendment issue that could affect the newspaper’s ability to freely cover a case that is important to the public.
“Reporters are entitled to protection from intrusive wiretapping, which threatens their ability to gather information in confidence and to report stories of public corruption that might not otherwise see the light of day,” Nobles said in a motion filed shortly before the hearing.
Nobles also noted that if Perez-Treviño were called as a witness, if could affect her ability to cover the trial, “and her being here is very important to the public.”
Hanen declined to suppress the recording, but at the same time said he was not admitting it into evidence at this time.
The judge also indicated that if the possibility of Perez-Treviño being called as a witness were to arise, that attorneys for the newspaper would be given notice and an opportunity to respond.
“I appreciate the courtesy the Court and the lawyers on both sides showed in hearing our motion first thing this morning on very short notice,” Nobles said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
“Judge Hanen gave his attention to our concerns and indicated we will be notified before Ms. Perez-Trevino is called to testify so we can take appropriate steps. It was a good outcome for our newspaper clients.”
John Bussian, First Amendment attorney for the Valley Morning Star and AIM Media, said in a statement: “We had little time to react to the Villalobos motion, so Judge Hanen’s willingness to allow us to argue a motion that we filed less than an hour before today’s hearing — to protect the free press interests at stake — was a victory for the press and public.
“Signs are good that Ms. Perez-Treviño will not be prevented from continuing to cover the proceedings for The Star.”
Both the defense and the prosecution objected to the motion to suppress.
Villalobos defense attorney Joel Androphy called the attempt to exclude the recording from trial “ludicrous and obstructionist,” adding that admitting the tape would not impinge on freedom of the press.
“The press is making a federal case of this that they don’t need to be,” Androphy quipped to the judge.
Defense attorneys argued in an April 9 motion that the FBI failed to record the entire conversation and could have excluded portions of the call that could show Villalobos’ innocence.
Hanen twice told Androphy that he had found nothing in the conversation that would be helpful to Villalobos’ defense, and that if anything, it could be harmful to the defense.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael J. Wynne said he objected to any motion to suppress evidence.