CORPUS CHRISTI — Federal prosecutors and defense counsel on Monday provided opposing pictures of Austin attorney Marc G. Rosenthal and cases he argued in Cameron County district court.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael J. Wynne and Oscar Ponce and defense attorneys Ernesto Gamez Jr. and Paul Kratzig laid out their cases in opening statements to a federal jury. The trial was moved from Brownsville to Corpus Christi after Rosenthal’s attorneys said local publicity made it impossible to get a fair trial here.
Rosenthal is on trial on 13 counts of conspiring to bribe former 404th state District Judge Abel C. Limas, bribing witnesses, filing false personal injury cases, directing others to pay individuals, including funeral home directors and a public employee, to refer cases to him, arranging to manipulate case assignments at the Cameron County District Clerk’s Office, and paying witnesses for false testimony and statements.
Rosenthal’s law firm Rosenthal & Watson also is named a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations enterprise in the federal indictment.
Wynne said Rosenthal was the “common denominator” in activities that he orchestrated and were carried out by others including Rosenthal’s former employee Gilbert Benavides, ex-state Rep. Jim Solis and Limas.
Wynne told the jury that Rosenthal had agreed with co-conspirators to “pervert the judicial system in Cameron County.”
“He was in charge of everything, try as he might to distance himself,” Wynne told the jury, adding that Rosenthal had tried to cover up his involvement.
“He called the shots,” Wynne said.
Gamez told the jury that Benavides, Solis and Limas had been the “insiders” who brought Rosenthal into a “turf that was really not known to him.”
Kratzig told the jury in opening statements that Solis had introduced Limas to Rosenthal at a Limas fundraiser in early 2008, had given the judge a political contribution and courted him.
Kratzig said Limas knew people and had been considered a “rainmaker” who could bring business to Rosenthal’s firm.
Kratzig added that Limas is a “cheat” who mixes truth with lies, had lied to protect his wife, son and himself, but could be “very persuasive.” Gamez described Benavides as cunning, charismatic and a sales guy.
The defense argued that the witnesses gave the government what it wanted in order to negotiate better deals for themselves and that they are testifying, as Benavides is, in order to avert indictment.
Some of the cases that Rosenthal worked on, Wynne told the jury, were pretty good, some not so good, but despite that, “Mr. Rosenthal could not leave well enough alone. No case was good enough,” he said, adding that Rosenthal was out of control.
“If he didn’t like the facts, he would find somebody to change those facts,” Wynne said, adding that Rosenthal became “more and more brazen as time went on and it got worse and worse as time progressed.”
The government’s first witness, Benavides, was called to the stand Monday. He testified that on Rosenthal’s instructions, his cousin, Jesse Mata, a stepson of late Cameron County Commissioner Pete Benavides and son of current County Commissioner Sofia Benavides, had posed as a witness to a fatal train accident.
Benavides testified that Rosenthal created stories to make cases viable, that Rosenthal had instructed him and others to make sure that witnesses testified to benefit the cases, maximize settlement amounts, and that it had been false.
Gamez’s cross examination of Benavides was under way late Monday.
Contacted by the Valley Morning Star, Commissioner Sofia Benavides declined to comment. She has not been implicated in the thousands of documents that have been filed in the federal case.