Jury convicts ex-judge for bribery, conspiracy, travel act violations, and obstruction charge

McALLEN — Hearing a former judge in his own words appeared enough for jurors to find him guilty of accepting bribes and attempting to cover his tracks once he learned of an investigation against him.

After roughly 10 hours of deliberating between Wednesday afternoon and most of Thursday, the six men and as many women jurors unanimously found Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado guilty of accepting bribes from Edinburg attorney-turned-government informant Noe Perez, and then trying to cover it up once it was clear federal agents were looking into the alleged bribery scheme.

Delgado, who has remained mostly reserved throughout the four-day trial proceedings, did not show much emotion as he sat beside his attorneys Michael McCrum and Terry W. Shamsie after the verdict’s announcement.

While in the gallery, which was full for the verdict, many of Delgado’s family members including his siblings, his wife Diana and at least one of his sons remained silent throughout the reading of the verdict.

Government prosecutors during the trial argued Perez and Delgado didn’t quite establish a direct “quid pro quo” bribery scheme, but instead there was an understanding between the two, specifically during instances where Perez would overpay for firewood at the judge’s home. This is something Perez testified he hoped would lead to favorable consideration in the judge’s home.

One of the deficiencies in the government’s case was the lack of evidence they presented showing a direct link from when Perez would give Delgado a bribe, to a direct action performed on Delgado’s part to help Perez.

FBI agents alleged that in 2008, Perez was paid by a client with a paid-off pickup truck worth roughly $15,000.

Perez testified that soon after he received the truck, he went over to McAllen attorney Carlos Guerra’s office, and showed Guerra the truck.

Carlos Guerra testified that while at a local function he mentioned to Delgado about Perez’s truck — piquing the interest of Delgado, who was in the market for such a vehicle.

Subsequently, Delgado approached Perez about the truck, asking about its value and condition. Shortly after, Perez and Delgado met, according to Perez’s testimony, and Delgado took possession of the truck but never compensated Perez for it.

Perez, when asked why he didn’t request money from the judge, testified he felt intimidated and that also, as a newer attorney, Perez did not want to jeopardize any standing with Delgado, as it could affect his livelihood.

Instead, Perez said he figured by allowing the judge to keep the truck free of charge, he had essentially established “credit” with the judge in his courtroom.

But the government did not present any clear instances in which Perez’s clients received a favorable outcome in Delgado’s courtroom — despite this jurors still found Delgado guilty of the conspiracy charge.

Where they lacked in direct evidence of bribes in the period between 2008, and 2016, they made up for it with four video recordings that they presented to the jury, in which discussions between the two men appeared to indicate an agreement between the two about money in exchange for favors.

Defense attorney McCrum and co-counsel Shamsie, throughout the trial, attempted to establish that jurors could not believe Perez, who in addition to not being a trustworthy witness, was being “pushed” by FBI agents to claim he bribed the judge, despite there never being a direct link between money given and favorable actions in Delgado’s courtroom.

The defense argued that during the initial meeting between Perez and FBI agents in November 2016, in which they had caught him telling a client of his he could persuade judges if he was paid more, Perez had repeatedly denied ever bribing Delgado.

Prosecutors said that they agreed that Perez initially denied the agents’ accusations, but that the agents pressed him on those statements, resulting in Perez admitting to the firewood meetings with the judge.

In these meetings, Perez, who lived near Delgado’s Edinburg home, would drive to the property under the guise of buying firewood, sometimes arriving with a case of beer, which on occasion also had anywhere from $250 to $260 cash inside.

On the obstruction charge, prosecutors argued that it was clear that the text message that Delgado sent to Perez on Jan. 29, 2018, just four days after Delgado learned of a possible federal investigation into him, was intended to make it appear as though the money that he had received nearly two weeks earlier, needed to be in check form for it to be a campaign contribution.

The recording shown to jurors from one of the four recorded meetings between the two men, this one on Jan. 17, 2018, shows Perez inside his pickup truck meeting with Delgado in the parking lot of a north McAllen restaurant.

During this meeting, Perez gives the name of a client and the client’s court case number to Delgado, and asks the judge to help him with it; Delgado agrees and is handed a half-inch to inch-thick white envelope containing $5,500 in cash.

This was important to the government’s case as it argued that after Delgado learns of the investigation into him, he sent a message to Perez stating he would have to return the envelope full of cash to him in exchange for a check, because he could not accept that much cash for a campaign contribution, something that wasn’t mentioned during the actual meeting.

Jurors, during the third day of testimony, were handed the envelope containing the $5,500 and allowed to touch it — the prosecution’s attempt to kill any notion that Delgado would have believed there was a check inside the envelope.

Prosecutors claimed this was clearly an attempt by Delgado to frame the interaction with Perez on Jan. 17 as legitimate.

“Good evening, please call me. The campaign contribution needs to be by check. I need to return that to you so you can write a check. Sorry about the confusion, I thought you knew and I did not open the envelope until today,” the message sent on Jan. 29, 2018, from Delgado to Perez reads.

During the trial, state Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-MIssion, testified that earlier that day he was called into Delgado’s chambers and was asked by the judge about a private conversation Guerra had with state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa.

Hinojosa had conveyed to Delgado the week before, on Jan. 25, 2018, during a social visit, that Guerra had told him that federal agents were looking at Delgado in connection with a “firewood” investigation.

Delgado confronted Guerra about the conversation, and later that day sent the text message to Perez.

McCrum argued that the judge was worried, but it was over the sale of firewood to another attorney in a case referred to as the “mesh” case, and not for any dealings with Perez.

During several instances, McCrum and the defense presented testimony and other evidence to jurors related to some of the tragedies experienced by Delgado and his family.

In February 2017, Delgado’s son, former Hidalgo County Assistant District Attorney Ricco Diaman Delgado, was found dead in an Austin creek. Before his death, the judge’s son had several run-ins with law enforcement as well.

A decade earlier, in 2007, another one of Delgado’s sons, Roman David Delgado, died in a car crash in McAllen at the age of 16.

The defense, during its turn to present witnesses, had Delgado’s wife, Diana Delgado, testify. She spoke about the fall of 2017, just after their son Ricco, who battled substance abuse issues, had come home from his time in a San Antonio rehab facility.

She described months of restless nights, as she and her husband had to take shifts in watching Ricco to make sure he would not leave the house to buy inhalants.

McCrum, by mentioning this period, was attempting to establish for jurors, at least in part, Delgado’s state of mind.

Prosecutors, during its closing argument, agreed that Delgado had faced tragedies, but that they were not relevant to the charges and the case, and asked jurors to focus on the elements of evidence presented to them.

With the verdict handed down, the case that began in earnest in November 2016, and continued with the subsequent arrest of Delgado in early Spring 2018, nears an end.

Delgado, who will remain on bond, albeit a higher one, from $100,000 to $250,000 as he has been since his initial court appearance in February 2018, is scheduled for sentencing Sept. 25, 2019, where he could face up to 10 years in prison. The court also restricted his travel to Hidalgo County, except in the instance he has to visit McCrum in San Antonio.

Delgado, who ran for Place 4 on the Texas 13th Court of Appeals and won, was subsequently suspended after he was sworn in earlier this year.

The suspension prohibits from executing appellate justice duties, but has allowed him to retain his seat without pay for now.

Delgado, who has not spoken publicly since his initial appearance in federal court in early February of 2018, has not indicated whether or not he plans to resign from the 13th Court of Appeals following the suspension.