With the end in sight for one of the largest public-corruption probes of the South Texas legal community, the lead federal prosecutor is warning about the dangers of too-cozy relationships between lawyers and judges.
“I think that there’s a culture and a close affiliation between judges and lawyers, partly due to the fact that our judges are elected. … As a result, it creates incentives that everybody involved has to be very mindful of. It’s a very close line,” said Michael Wynne, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas in Houston.
A federal judge on Dec. 3 sentenced Austin lawyer Marc Rosenthal to 20 years in prison. The same day, former 404th District Judge Abel Limas surrendered to federal prison for his six-year sentence. One more lawyer awaits sentencing next year.
After four years working as lead prosecutor on the judicial-bribery imbroglio, Wynne said he hopes his work has a “broader impact.”
“It was an honor to be able to be in a position to be responsible for these kinds of cases, and when you’re handling them, you’re very aware of the impact that something like that can have on the life of somebody—say a lawyer or a judge—who is used to a great measure of success and admiration. … You can’t get it wrong,” said Wynne, now a partner in McDermott Will & Emery in Houston.
Houston criminal-defense lawyer Chip Lewis, who represented Limas, said he’s talked with lawyers from the Rio Grande Valley who said the cases have sent a “resounding message.”
Limas handled himself with “class” when he reported to prison on Dec. 3, Lewis recalled.
“He called it a new beginning, and hopefully the folks—the lawyers and the legal community—will learn a lot about the mistakes he made, that others before him made, that came to be the ‘Valley way,’” Lewis added. “Many people down there have always felt the system down there was corrupt.”
Mervyn Mosbacker Jr., who was opposing counsel to Wynne in the government’s case against former state representative Jim Solis, said he is from Brownsville and he practiced in South Texas. He disagreed with the perception that the area has an “exclusive” on corruption.
“Unfortunately, there are instances of corruption and unethical conduct for a small percentage of the legal community and the judiciary throughout the state of Texas and throughout the United States,” said Mosbacker, a Houston criminal-defense solo.
He added about Wynne’s work prosecuting the cases, “I hope that it has a positive effect, in that it illustrates for practitioners throughout the state of Texas that the rules are in place for a reason.”
Wynne said there were convictions against Limas, Rosenthal, Solis and three other attorneys: Joe Valle, former Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos and Ray Marchan, whose conviction was vacated after he killed himself before his appeal was decided. [See "Convictions in the Limas Scandal," this page.]
A jury acquitted one other lawyer, and Wynne said another entered a nonprosecution agreement. There were additional cases against nonlawyers.
Wynne explained that, in general, the issue involved lawyers paying money to Limas in exchange for favorable judicial actions.
He noted that Limas handled hundreds of cases, as did the five convicted attorneys. Wynne and his colleagues also combed through 40,000 intercepted conversations and 800 interviews.
“To be able to distill that, boil it down and present it in an organized fashion to a jury was a challenge. It could get confusing at times,” he said.
When asked what surprised him during his work, he replied, “I was struck by how little money it took for a public official to compromise their integrity. I was also struck by how, in every instance, the official action taken and the amount of money exchanged was fairly small, but how it grew over time to encompass larger and larger amounts and bigger and bigger decisions.”
Mosbacker called the case against Solis “very unfortunate” and “a sad story.”
“I think pretty much everybody acknowledged: In his community he was a community leader and had done and continues to do a lot of really good things,” Mosbacker said. “He basically got caught up in this scheme and unfortunately, made some decisions that he regrets, and he’s paid the price for it.”
The attorneys for the other convicted lawyers each didn’t return a call seeking comment. They include Ernesto Gamez Jr. representing Rosenthal; Noe Domingo Garza Jr. representing Marchan; Eric Reed representing Valle; and Ashley Gargour representing Villalobos.
CONVICTIONS IN THE LIMAS SCANDAL
Former assistant U.S. attorney Michael Wynne was lead prosecutor in the cases stemming from the investigation of corruption surrounding former judge Abel Limas. He won convictions against Limas and five lawyers.
Abel Corral Limas
According to an Oct. 21 Judgment in a Criminal Case in United States v. Limas, Limas, the former judge of 404th District Court in Cameron County, pleaded guilty on March 31, 2011, to one count of violating the federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statute. He was sentenced to serve six years in prison and three years of supervised release, and he was ordered to pay $6.25 million in restitution and a $100 assessment.
Marc Garrett Rosenthal
A jury in February found Rosenthal guilty of 13 counts, according to the Feb. 28 verdict in United States v. Rosenthal. He was convicted of one count of conspiracy to violate the RICO statute; five counts of mail fraud; three counts of tampering with witnesses or proceedings; one count of extortion; and three counts of mail fraud aiding and abetting and deprivation of honest services. But U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen at a Dec. 3 sentencing hearing set aside two mail-fraud counts, according to a Dec. 3 minute entry on PACER, the federal courts’ online filing system. The judge sentenced Rosenthal to serve 20 years in prison and three years of supervised release and ordered him to pay $13.29 million in restitution, according to the minute entry.
Ray Roman Marchan
A jury found Marchan guilty of six counts after a trial in June 2012, according to a Jan. 22 Judgment in a Criminal Case in United States v. Marchan. He was convicted of one count of racketeering; one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering; three counts of interference with commerce under color of official right; and one count of aiding and abetting honest services mail fraud. He was sentenced to serve 42 months in prison and three years of supervised release, and he was ordered to pay a $600 assessment. The judgment was vacated in April because Marchan committed suicide in September 2012 before his appeal was decided.
Jose Martin ‘Joe’ Valle
Valle pleaded guilty on Aug. 10, 2011, to one count of aiding and abetting extortion under color of official right, according to a May 3, 2012, Judgment in a Criminal Case. He was sentenced to serve one year and one day in prison and two years of supervised release, and he was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and a $100 assessment.
Jose Santiago ‘Jim’ Solis
Solis pleaded guilty to one count of aiding and abetting the interference of commerce by extortion under color of official right, according to an Oct. 21 Judgment in a Criminal Case. He was sentenced to serve three years and 11 months in prison and three years of supervised release, and he wasordered to pay $118,128 restitution and a $100 assessment.
A jury on May 24 found Villalobos guilty of seven counts. He was convicted of one count of violation of the RICO Act; one count of conspiracy to commit violation of the RICO act; four counts of extortion under color of right; and one count of aiding and abetting extortion under color of right. Villalobos’ sentencing hearing is scheduled in February 2014.