U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen on Tuesday denied a defense motion to acquit ex-Cameron County District Attorney Armando R. Villalobos of public-corruption charges at this juncture, but said that the sufficiency of the evidence on “some” counts is “pretty thin.”
“You’ve got me convinced on the circumstances,” Hanen told Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael J. Wynne, but “get me to the place where the money (changed hands).”
With the suggestion that a brief could be submitted, Wynne reviewed the evidence for Hanen, including the testimony of witnesses, their meetings with Villalobos, telephone calls of witnesses with Villalobos, and ensuing financial transactions and campaign contributions.
“Crooks don’t want to get caught,” Wynne told Hanen. Wynne added, “You have to put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Defense attorney Ashley Gargour told Hanen that “the government is confined to the limits of its indictment.”
Gargour, who motioned for acquittal on behalf of the defense and presented arguments, also argued that the government’s evidence — including testimony of its witnesses — was insufficient on the nine counts to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The allegations don’t fit the crime that has been alleged,” she said in the course of reviewing each count against Villalobos.
Hanen’s denial to acquit Tuesday with notation to the defense that it could resubmit the request brought a conclusion to Day 8 of Villalobos’ trial in federal court in Brownsville.
The former state prosecutor and U.S. congressional candidate is accused of soliciting and accepting bribes from attorneys handling criminal cases and matters before the DA’s office between October 2006 through May 3, 2012, in return for access and favorable treatment.
The government rested its case Tuesday and then the defense began to present its witnesses. Defense attorneys told Hanen that a stream of attorneys would be testifying on Villalobos’ behalf today.
Hanen urged the defense to move things along if the expectation is that all of them would be testifying that they have never bribed Villalobos.
The day’s developments also included notation that the State Bar of Texas on Monday ordered a transcript of the testimony of government witness attorney Oscar de la Fuente Jr. held on May 15. The government provided De la Fuente with immunity from prosecution.
De la Fuente has testified that he paid bribes and kickbacks to ex-404th District Judge Abel C. Limas and to Villalobos for favorable rulings, access and treatment for his clients. De la Fuente also has testified that he, Villalobos and others engaged in schemes that Villalobos spearheaded to tap into drug-related funds that had been seized to enrich themselves and others.
On the stand Tuesday, FBI Special Agent Mark J. Gripka said that the FBI has authorized release of documents to the State Bar of Texas regarding numerous individuals, and that Assistant U.S. Attorney Oscar Ponce is working with the bar on this.
Attorney Rick Canales, who said he has worked hundreds of cases and a lot when Villalobos was DA, was the first witness for the defense, testifying that Villalobos has “a heart. He wasn’t hard-headed.”
Canales said he would not meet often with then Assistant District Attorney Chuck Mattingly, and said that some prosecutors have more of a heart, some have less of a heart, some are hard-headed and others are less hard-headed.
Canales also testified that sometimes it would “take a while” to be able to see Villalobos, adding that he dealt with Villalobos about 5 percent of the time and the remainder with rank and file. Canales said that he sometimes got a better deal from Villalobos than from an assistant district attorney, and that sometimes he didn’t. He said he never paid Villalobos, and he responded that he gives campaign contributions to a lot of people, and “I max out all the judges,” Canales said, noting that he provides judges with the maximum in campaign contributions that the judges can receive.
On cross-examination by Wynne, Canales testified that he has contributed substantially to Villalobos’ campaigns, is a good friend, has taken trips to Las Vegas in a group with Villalobos, and traveled with Villalobos to Mexico in March 2009 because Villalobos needed to get medical treatment and asked him to go with him. He also agreed with Wynne that he, Canales, and Villalobos had been together May 10 just before the start of the trial.
“You were in a bench in front of a bank,” Wynne told Canales. The defense did not redirect.
Prior to Canales, Gripka continued his testimony.
Gripka continued on the stand under examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Surovic. They reviewed cash withdrawals from Villalobos’ ex-partner Eddie Lucio’s account and subsequent money order purchases by Villalobos. On Sept. 16, 2008, Lucio took out $3,000 from an account. That same day, there were eight texts between Villalobos and Lucio. On Sept. 18, 2008, and Sept. 19, 2008, several money orders were purchased.
Gripka also reviewed several money order purchases, including $450 to Boca Chica Management for storage, $747.11 to Toyota Financial Services, $435.07 to Toyota Financial Services and $300 to Wells Fargo. These money orders are all dated in April 2011 when De la Fuente received $97,000 from the case that is commonly referred to as the money-house case.
Surovic and Gripka also reviewed meeting dates between De la Fuente and Villalobos and dates when Villalobos purchased money orders. De la Fuente has testified that he paid Villalobos for access and favorable treatment about one-third of the times they met.
Villalobos also made money orders payable to him. There is a $500 money order payable to Villalobos.
Gripka also reviewed cash deposits: There were deposits of $500 in cash each deposited Feb. 14, 16, and 17, 2011. Villalobos and De la Fuente had met on Feb. 8, 2011.
Gripka testified that Villalobos went to different Stripes gas stations and to the H-E-B to buy money orders. He said there were about 10 places that Villalobos went to for money orders, and very rarely if ever got cashier checks. Gripka and Surovic also reviewed campaign contributions to Villalobos and pointed out that cash contributions were not reflected in the reports.
Meeting dates that Villalobos had with Limas also were reviewed. For example, they met on May 21, 2009, and Villalobos deposited $500 in his account on May 22, 2009.
Villalobos and Limas again met on Dec. 10, 2009.
On Dec. 11, 2009, Villalobos purchased two money grams, At Wal-Mart likely, Gripka said, for $500 to Wells Fargo, $615.89 to Toyota, and a money order from H-E-B for $579.52.
On Sept. 28, 2009, another government witness, Joe Valle, met with Villalobos. Two days later on Sept. 30, 2009, Villalobos made a $1,000 cash deposit into his account, documents showed.
Responding to defense attorney Joel M. Androphy, Gripka said that the analysis did not reflect cash withdrawals from De La Fuente’s account. “He was smart enough not to do that,” Gripka said.