Becoming a lawyer or judge can be the proudest moment in the lives of some 90,000 people who perform those jobs in Texas. But it can end up as a terrible career choice for those who violate ethics rules or break the law, as they will likely wind up getting disciplined, arrested, indicted or sent to prison.
Texas Lawyer has been documenting the troubles of the legal industry for the past three decades, and there were plenty of instances during 2018. We’ve compiled a list of the most outrageous allegations and subsequent punishments dished out over the past 12 months for what we call The 2018 Top 10 Troubled Lawyers and Judges in Texas List.
Consider the former San Antonio lawyer who was sentenced to 80 years in prison for having sex with clients in exchange for legal services. Or the former Houston state district court judge who was admonished for jailing a mentally ill sexual assault victim in order to secure her testimony at trial. And one South Texas lawyer got arrested for what was arguably an act of compassion—picking up undocumented immigrants stranded on the side of the highway—only to have the charges dropped by prosecutors.
The following, presented in chronological order, come from some of the best-read articles we published during the year.
All of the lawyers and judges on the list are considered innocent until proved guilty—or in the case of the State Bar of Texas or the State Commission on Judicial Conduct discipline, until their administrative appeals run out.
1. Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado, a state district judge who was charged with allegedly accepting $6,000 in bribes from an attorney in exchange for favorable rulings.
When a lawyer tempts a judge with cash to rule his way, one of two circumstances are usually at play: the attorney offering the money is either unethical or working with the federal authorities as an informant. Both were allegedly the case for Delgado, judge of the 93rd District Court in Edinburg, who was arrested on Feb. 2 on bribery charges after the FBI worked with an unnamed lawyer who confessed he had a history of bribing Delgado as far back as 2008. The attorney allegedly provided Delgado with prerecorded government funds on two occasions as payment for placing his clients on bond, according to a criminal complaint. Delgado later allegedly sent a text message to the lawyer in an attempt to cover up the bribe, stating, “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,” according to the complaint. Delgado, who has pleaded not guilty, has a Feb. 25, 2019, trial date.
2. Rayan Ganesh, a Dallas criminal defense attorney who was sentenced to eight years in prison for luring teenage girls to his law office with the promise of a job and then masturbating in front of them.
Ganesh is the kind of lawyer his fellow defense attorneys despise—he took advantage of clients at their weakest moments while at the courthouse, and then took advantage of their families. “He would come down here every day and approach people who didn’t have a lawyer and would tell them he could get their case dismissed for a very low price, usually for about $500,” said Mike Snipes, Dallas County’s first assistant district attorney who prosecuted Ganesh. “If they happened to have a teenage daughter with them, and if they were Hispanic, he would offer them a job.” Ganesh would then have the teenage girls come to his office after business hours to “work” while he looked at pornography on his computer and masturbated in front of them, Snipes said. Ganesh was sentenced to eight years in prison by 282nd Judge Amber Givens-Davis on two counts of felony indecency with a child by exposure. Ganesh was also charged with seven counts of barratry, but prosecutors declined to pursue those charges. During his sentencing hearing, the courtroom was packed with about 30 lawyers—both prosecutors and defense attorneys—who were there to see justice served to Ganesh, according to Snipes. “I had all of the lawyers in the courtroom stand up. And I said ‘Each of you are the victims of this,’” Snipes said, referring to Ganesh’s unethical behavior. “Because you make us look like the worst nightmare of the public as to what lawyers are all about.”
3. Mark Benavides, a former San Antonio criminal defense attorney who was sentenced to 80 years in prison for having sex with his clients in exchange for legal services.
Benavides was arrested in 2015 on multiple counts of sexual assault and compelling prostitution after San Antonio police alleged he forced his client to have sex with him to pay for legal services—sometimes inside the Bexar County Courthouse. None of the victims knew each other, but they all said Benavides was their lawyer, and that he made them have sex with him and videotaped the encounters. And all of the victims said Benavides has a distinctive tattoo of the scales of justice on his back. Investigators seized more than 200 mini-DVDs that contained hundreds of videos of Benavides and his former clients engaged in sex acts. On the opening day of his trial, a video was played that was so graphic, a juror fainted as the panel left the courtroom, according to a report at the time. The jury convicted Benavides of six counts of continuous trafficking of persons and sentenced him to prison for 80 years.
4. Kirk Lawrence Brannan, a Lake Jackson attorney who pleaded guilty to a bank fraud in which he sold 10 beach houses at inflated prices, paying big kickbacks to co-conspirators while bilking $5.3 million from various banks.
Brannan admitted his role in a bank fraud scheme in which he allegedly sold 10 beach houses along the Texas Gulf Coast to straw buyers at double or triple their appraised value, and then paid $2.4 million in kickbacks to his co-conspirators, prosecutors charged. That scheme ended up defrauding Wells Fargo and other lenders out of $5.3 million. Brannan faces a sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal of Houston on Feb. 13, 2019. Brannan originally attended law school to fight for the rights of beach homeowners who faced the potential loss of their houses at a time when the state could declare beaches public land through “rolling easements,” said his attorney, Sam Adamo of Houston. “And he and his family had built a lot of beach houses there and would rent them. At the time all of this started, he was worth about $12 million, and now he’s completely broke. He’s lost all of the houses, all his money and will lose his law degree. He just couldn’t fight it,” Adamo said.
5. Eric Hagstette, Joseph Licata III and Jill Wallace, Harris County hearing officers who were disciplined by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for denying personal recognizance bonds to misdemeanor defendants and sued the commission over their punishment.
Hagstette, Licata and Wallace are all Harris County criminal law officers who assist elected state district judges with initial criminal court hearings that advise criminal defendants of their rights, set money bail and determine whether the accused are eligible for release on a personal bond. And all three found themselves in the crosshairs of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which issued a public admonition of the trio for failing to follow the law in strictly adhering to directives from state district court judges to refrain from issuing personal bonds to defendants. The rare disciplinary action followed a landmark April 2017 ruling from U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, who held Harris County’s bail system unconstitutional because it violated the right of indigent misdemeanor defendants by keeping them jailed only because they couldn’t afford bail. In turn, the three hearing officers had an equally unusual response to the disciplinary action: they sued the commission in a state district court, arguing that the agency exceeded its mandate in issuing the disciplinary actions based on its own interpretation of the law, rather than on well-settled law. “All courts to have considered this question have agreed: The commission is not permitted to interpret law and then find a violation. Yet that is precisely what the commission has done here,” according to their petition.
6. Richard Kent Livesay, a former South Texas lawyer who was sentenced to five years in prison for insurance fraud and barratry after filing lawsuits on behalf of clients he’d never met.
Livesay had a good scam going while it lasted, prosecutors said. He obtained insurance claim information from a roofing company that solicited its customers door-to-door after a hail storm in Arlington. He would then funnel $1,000 payments to the roofing company through a shell company for the information that he used to file insurance claim lawsuits on behalf of clients he’d never met—or at least who never knew he was filing lawsuits in their names. Livesay later pleaded guilty to insurance fraud and barratry, and received a five-year prison sentence. He also agreed to surrender his law license and pay restitution to his victims in exchange for prosecutors dropping 14 other insurance-related fraud charges against him. “Sometimes, he’d show up [at a client’s residence] and say ‘I’m with the roofing company, they sent me. Just sign right here’ and it’s a letter of solicitation. And these people didn’t even know him,” said Matt Smid, a Tarrant County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Livesay. “That’s where the barratry comes in.”
7. Armando Treviño, a Laredo lawyer who was arrested for picking up undocumented immigrants on the roadside only to have the charges dismissed by prosecutors.
In certain quarters of Texas, Treviño would be considered a hero for an act of empathy: he picked up a pair of Hondurans along a South Texas highway who had entered the United States illegally only to be abandoned by their guide. That move ended up getting Treviño arrested after an off-duty U.S. Border Patrol agent who was traveling on the same highway spotted the two undocumented immigrants get into the lawyer’s Toyota sport utility vehicle. According to an arrest affidavit, the passengers told Border Patrol agents they had each paid smugglers $2,500 to be taken to San Antonio, but their guide left them stranded after crossing the Rio Grande. After catching a ride with Treviño, the lawyer told the Hondurans that he could not take them that far, but he could take them farther north. A week later, prosecutors apparently had second thoughts about the case and dropped the charges against Treviño. During the 1960s, Treviño helped lead student walkouts in South Texas in protest of discrimination against of Mexican-Americans in classrooms and later became a Chicano activist in college.
8. Stacey Bond, a former Houston state district court judge who was admonished for ordering a mentally ill sexual assault victim jailed in order to secure her testimony at trial.
A special court of review approved a public admonishment for Bond, who served as judge of the 176th District Court from 2013 until 2016. Bond was previously disciplined by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for violating the rights of Jane Doe, an unnamed mentally ill homeless sexual assault victim whom Bond placed in jail for nearly a month on an improper bench warrant. Bond placed Doe in custody to secure her testimony at trial, a move that led to her being attacked by another inmate while in custody. Bond appealed the punishment, but the special court of review consisting of three Texas intermediate appellate court justices affirmed the decision, concluding she had violated several cannons of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The court noted that Bond appeared to be remorseful for the treatment of Doe and contended she merely made a mistake by signing a poorly worded bench warrant. “While mere mistakes of law are generally not sanctionable, on the record before us, we conclude that Judge Bond made an egregious legal error and failed to act in a manner that promotes confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary,” the court wrote. Bond ran as a Republican for the 185th State District Court in the 2018 General Election but was defeated by Democrat Jason Luong.
9. Texas lawmaker-lawyer Ron Reynolds, who decided to start serving a one-year sentence for barratry so he could get out of jail in time for the upcoming legislative session.
Reynolds and his barratry case have had a host of twists and turns over the past five years. He was originally charged with felony barratry in 2013 for allegedly improperly soliciting personal injury clients by paying a nonlawyer to contact accident victims through police reports. Reynolds denied the allegations. And in 2014, Judge Lisa Michalk of the 221st District Court declared a mistrial in his case. The following year, the Montgomery County DA’s Office decided to dismiss the felony barratry charges against Reynolds and refile misdemeanor barratry charges against him to avoid a double-jeopardy bar. In November 2015, Reynolds left a courtroom in handcuffs after another jury convicted him of five counts of misdemeanor barratry, earning him a one-year jail sentence. He was released from jail after posting an appeal bond. And in 2017, an appellate court affirmed Reynolds’ misdemeanor convictions. Reynolds vowed to keep appealing his case, but is allowed to keep his job as a lawmaker because he was not convicted of a felony. In 2018 he voluntarily revoked his appeal bond and started serving his sentence so he could be released from jail in time to serve during the 86th legislative session beginning in 2019. Reynolds, a Democrat, ran unopposed and won his seat while sitting in jail during the November general election.
10. Former Texas lawmaker-lawyer Carlos Uresti pleads guilty to bribery.
Uresti, a former Democratic state senator, had steadfastly asserted his innocence against federal charges until a jury convicted him in February on 11 felony fraud-related counts, including steering his client to invest in a hydraulic fracking business that turned out to be a front for a Ponzi scheme. He was sentenced by U.S. District Judge David Ezra to 12 years in prison and ordered to pay $6.3 million, and eventually resigned his law license in lieu of discipline from the State Bar of Texas. Uresti continued maintaining his innocence and vowed to appeal, but decided to cut his losses and plead guilty in October to an unrelated bribery charge that could have sent him to prison for an additional five years. “It was a defensible case that I advised him he would win. However, any case comes with risks. If he lost, he was risking stacked sentences in addition to the 12 years he’s already got,” said Mikal Watts, a San Antonio plaintiffs lawyer who represented Uresti and who previously defended himself pro se, successfully, against federal fraud charges connected to the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. “And by pleading, prosecutors recommended concurrent sentences. So what he really gave up was his right to appeal the first trial, and given the poor odds of reversal at the Fifth Circuit on any criminal case, eliminating the risk of stacked sentences in exchange for giving up his appeal of the first trial made eminent sense.”