When three longtime friends of former Cameron County District Attorney Armando R. Villalobos took the stand this past week, they alleged a chain of corruption made strong by favors and money, where even access to the state prosecutor was for sale.
Attractive plea deals and other favors from Villalobos to attorney-friends in exchange for money was never specifically discussed or stated; it was “understood,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael J. Wynne said Thursday, addressing presiding U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen.
“This is what we do down here,” ex-404th State District Judge Abel C. Limas told defense attorney Joel Androphy.
“I would give him money for preferential treatment on cases I was discussing with him,” attorney Oscar de la Fuente Jr. also alleged.
Now convicted felon and former attorney Joe Valle testified that he timed campaign payments to Villalobos when he needed to discuss plea agreements for his clients because it gave him a “better chance of getting an appointment” with Villalobos.
For his part, Androphy described Limas, De la Fuente and Valle as a “disgraced lawyer and attorneys.”
“The U.S. government bargained for false testimony,” Androphy said.
Androphy said that in his cross-examination of the government witnesses Thursday, “I didn’t even get to first base,” meaning that he reserved his questioning for his client’s upcoming trial.
“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” he predicted.
The forum was a pretrial hearing for Villalobos in federal court in Brownsville. Villalobos, who served two terms as DA from 2005 through the end of 2012, faces 12 public-corruption charges.
He is charged with having used his position to enrich himself and others through bribery and extortion, favoritism, improper influence, self-dealing, concealment and conflict of interest.
The pretrial proceeding, called a James hearing, was held to determine if statements from Limas, De la Fuente, and Valle could be admitted in Villalobos’ trial to show an alleged conspiracy including them, Villalobos and Eduardo “Eddie” Lucio, Villalobos’ former law partner.
Hanen ruled Friday that they could be admitted, finding the existence of an alleged conspiracy that included the five, although Valle, to a lesser extent.
Villalobos’ trial is scheduled for next month, and Limas, also now a convicted felon who pleaded guilty to racketeering; De la Fuente, who has a non-prosecution agreement with the government; and Valle who was released from prison last month for aiding extortion, are among the government’s key witnesses in its prosecution of Villalobos.
“I’ve known him for a long time,” Limas testified of Villalobos. Limas served as state district judge of the 404th Judicial District two terms from 2001 through the end of 2008. He entered private practice in January 2009, working with Austin attorney Marc G. Rosenthal’s law firm and former state Rep. Jim Solis on civil cases, while establishing a criminal practice also. A criminal practice was his passion, Limas has said.
Limas testified Thursday that he could always count on Villalobos when he really needed him to help him out on deals for his criminal defendants.
“I wasn’t going to bother him that much,” Limas said, adding that he would go to Villalobos when he had a good “client that paid good in order to get a good deal.”
One of his clients in 2009 when Limas returned to private practice was Vicente Atkinson, who had been charged with possession of cocaine. Atkinson had another drug charge in Kingsville.
Having numerous charges “makes it more difficult to get a decent plea bargain,” Limas said, adding that he went to Villalobos and was able to get Atkinson into the pretrial diversion program where the cocaine charge would be dismissed upon completion of conditions.
When he returned to private practice in 2009, Limas said he hosted monthly lunches with friends on Thursdays at his office building. About 15 or so friends, including Villalobos, lawyers, and judges, sometimes accompanied by personnel, would attend, Limas said.
During one of the lunches, in the latter part of June 2009, Limas said that he called Villalobos to an office in the building while the rest mingled throughout other parts of the building. “I was leaning on the desk (in the office),” Limas recounted from the stand.
“‘Este (hey), I told you this guy paid me, Atkinson’,” Limas testified that he told Villalobos. Limas further testified that he then pulled out $500 in $20 dollar bills and gave it to Villalobos.
“Why?” Wynne asked Limas.
“Because I got a good deal on Mr. Atkinson’s case and I was happy,” Limas responded.
To Androphy on cross-examination, Limas said that this is what is done “down here.”
“I had an open door to Villalobos. He (had) an open door to my court (too),” Limas testified, adding that they “help each other.”
And, when an assistant district attorney, like Peter Gilman, wouldn’t agree to a plea with conditions Limas sought for a client, Limas said he would go to Villalobos, “because I knew I could get it,” Limas said.
Limas said he always believed that he was a good lawyer: “I had an excellent practice,” he reminisced.
Limas did not recall the exact dates of when he made what he alleges were payments on the Atkinson case and others, but didn’t have trouble recalling the year when he claims they were made. It was in 2009, he testified.
“I didn’t get to practice much in 2010,” Limas testified. That is when federal investigators zeroed in on him, turning his dreams to a nightmare, and breaking a link in the chain.
Androphy countered that Limas gave the information to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to get a “special” deal at sentencing time.
“I don’t think it’s special at all,” Limas said.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I’m praying, I’ll tell you that,” Limas said.
DE LA FUENTE JR.
De la Fuente Jr. and Villalobos grew up together in San Benito. Villalobos’ jewelry business was near De la Fuente’s family business.
On Thursday, however, the childhood friends sat separated: one sat by his attorney’s side while the other sat on the witness stand, making allegations that he had received favors from his longtime friend.
“Mr. Villalobos and I were friends,” De la Fuente Jr. testified. His testimony reflected that both were close, privately talked about numerous cases, and that both he, De la Fuente Jr., and Villalobos’ former law partner, Lucio, worked on a forfeiture case.
De la Fuente Jr. testified that he and Lucio each received $42,000 for working on the case; his client got back a tractor-trailer that had been seized; and a murder charge against his client’s family member had been dismissed.
“I gave him $5,000 in about two payments,” De la Fuente Jr. said of money he alleges he paid to Villalobos for preferential treatment on the case.
De la Fuente Jr. said he also shared in $97,500 from another significant forfeiture case involving the same family, and that he also allegedly gave Villalobos $5,000.
“‘I have a deal for you’,” De la Fuente Jr. said Villalobos told him, bringing him into a forfeiture case.
De la Fuente Jr. also testified to a stream of criminal cases where he said he had been able to secure attractive plea bargaining agreements for his clients in exchange for money.
“I was going to get favorable treatment because I was giving him money,” De la Fuente Jr. testified.
He testified that the payments to Villalobos started at the time Villalobos was seeking his re-election bid for a second term in office. Sometimes, he said, he also would kick back money to Limas from ad-litem appointments.
“He would know I got the (ad litem) money,” De la Fuente Jr. said of Limas. “He seemed to always need money.”
Androphy referred to the non-prosecution agreement that De la Fuente Jr. got from the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a “free pass” and asked him to name the people he had provided information about in debriefings with the federal investigators and prosecutors.
De la Fuente Jr. named Limas, Assistant U.S. Attorney Angel Castro, and Villalobos, and described his relationship with Castro, “maybe a bit out of the ordinary.”
In questions posed, Androphy suggested that De la Fuente’s relationship with Castro had been no different than that with Villalobos.
De la Fuente testified that he never paid Castro, had put in a good word for Castro’s wife, had helped in the dismissal of a ticket for another assistant U.S. attorney at Castro’s request, and had helped Castro with some forms that needed to be signed.
Androphy on Saturday asked: “Why does the government consider De la Fuente’s allegations against Castro false, but true against my client? I rest my case.”
Wynne on Thursday reminded De la Fuente Jr. of other people he had named in his debriefings.
De la Fuente Jr. said that he might have mentioned an instance when he gave retired Cameron County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Daniel T. Robles $200 in cash for his brother’s party who had been elected.
Robles told the Valley Morning Star Saturday: “I do not recall any such contribution ever having been made to me by Oscar. I do not know if he ever contributed to any of my brother’s campaigns. My brother has been involved in at least four campaigns for election or re-election over the years.
“Also, I do not recall my brother ever having held any campaign parties after having been elected. He only had a few campaign fundraisers during his multiple campaigns way before the primary election for which plates of food were sold at the fundraiser,” Robles added.
De la Fuente Jr. on Thursday also named Cameron County Court-at-Law No. 3 Judge David Gonzales III in connection with the referral of a civil case from San Benito and a payment.
The Valley Morning Star’s attempt to contact Gonzales was not successful.
Androphy said Saturday that he had not understood De la Fuente’s allegation regarding Gonzales, describing De la Fuente’s testimony about the judge as “garbled.”
But, “the bigger the target, the bigger the bargaining power, and the bigger the benefit,” Androphy said of De la Fuente’s allegations.
He said De la Fuente, “is making false accusations to save his own interests and law license,” asking why De la Fuente can no longer practice in federal court, but can in state court.
Valle testified Thursday that he had trouble getting appointments with Villalobos so he came up with an idea.
The idea was to time partial payments on a $5,000 campaign pledge that he had made toVillalobos when he needed to discuss his clients’ cases with Villalobos and pleas, he said.
Valle testified that this provided him with a “better chance of getting an appointment.”
Valle testified that he gave Villalobos two payments of $1,500 each in cash as he arranged for pleas on two separate cases, and that he carried the money in envelopes.
On cross-examination, Valle testified that he would have met his campaign pledge toVillalobos even if he had not received plea agreements from Villalobos because he is a man of his word.