BROWNSVILLE — An extensive federal investigation found corruption in the Cameron County’s legal system and judiciary to be so pervasive that most people probably wouldn’t believe it — “unless they heard it themselves,” U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen said in 2013.
Hanen made his statement on Dec. 3, as he sentenced Austin attorney Marc G. Rosenthal to 20 years in jail and ordered him to make restitution of more than $13 million for bribing former 404th state District Judge Abel C. Limas.
The jury found Rosenthal paid Limas for favorable court rulings in civil cases, bribed witnesses, filed false personal injury cases, directed ex-state Rep. Jim Solis and others to pay funeral home directors and ex-Brownsville Navigation District police Chief George Gavito to refer cases. It also found he arranged to manipulate case assignments at the Cameron County District Clerk’s Office, and paid persons to pose as witnesses and to provide false statements, and testimony.
On that same day that the jury returned its verdict on Rosenthal, attorney Ray R. Marchan was supposed to report to federal prison in Fort Worth, following his June 18, 2012 conviction on six counts of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, aiding and abetting extortion and mail fraud. He was sentenced to 3.5 years in jail.
Instead, Marchan jumped to his death from the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge.
In response to Rosenthal’s conviction and at his sentencing, Hanen in 2013 also issued a ruling that “a lawyer holds a position of public trust” in the administration of justice, which was a factor in the range of punishment for the disgraced lawyer.
A bribe of about $300 paid to Limas spurred the six-year federal investigation into public corruption. A woman complained to the FBI that Limas had to be paid to resolve recurring issues about probation.
On the same day that Rosenthal was sentenced, Limas surrendered to U.S. Marshals to begin serving his sentence of six years in federal prison.
This punctuated the criminal charges that arose from the investigation into Limas that the U.S. Attorney’s Office brought against 12 defendants. All but one were convicted.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael J. Wynne, who is now in private practice, was the lead federal prosecutor on the cases, joined by AUSA Oscar Ponce and AUSA Gregory J. Surovic.
But the inquiries are far from over.
In the course of several trials, Hanen issued orders, the most recent in August, focused on unresolved ethical and factual issues following a jury’s acquittal of attorney Eduardo “Eddie” Lucio on racketeering, conspiracy and extortion charges.
Lucio is not related to the local state legislators of the same name.
Hanen expressed concerns that Lucio and others possibly violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct arising from the testimony in Lucio’s trial about the alleged forgery of documents, the settlement and distribution of funds surrounding the case of convicted murderer Amit Livingston, as well as the legal and criminal action that was taken to seize $901,000 from a truck.
The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct govern the conduct of attorneys.
Hanen directed the government in an order filed in court records to provide to the State Bar of Texas all information about three cases that surfaced in Lucio’s trial.
“The court does not have a preference as to which government attorneys comply with this order, as long as it complies as soon as practical,” Hanen ordered.
Hanen noted in his order that he was not prejudging any particular fact situation.
“This order should not be taken by the State Bar or any other investigative body as to what its ultimate conclusion should or should not be,” Hanen wrote. “Further, the ‘not guilty’ verdict . . . should also not be taken as deciding any ethical or factual issues regarding the concerns raised by the court.
“The jury was never presented with all the relevant information and was never asked to resolve any of the ethical issues raised,” he said.
“Finally, this order should not be taken as an order to any ethical investigation agency as to what it should investigate or as a limitation as to what it may investigate,” Hanen said.
“The purpose of this order is solely to ensure that the government provides what information it has already gathered and to raise a suggestion of topics that need to be addressed based solely upon what little evidence this court saw during the trial,” the judge stated.
Hanen said that there had been trial testimony that certain contracts and affidavits were forged, as were certain settlement checks resulting from a lawsuit.
“If true, and if a lawyer participated in this fraudulent conduct, there were violations of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct,” Hanen wrote.
In the Livingston case, Lucio attached the $500,000 bond in a civil wrongful death suit filed on behalf of the victim’s family. Of that bond, $300,000 was paid to the victim’s family, and $200,000 to Lucio who allegedly funneled $80,000 to then-Cameron County District Attorney Armando R. Villalobos.
Hanen said: “The entire settlement and distribution of settlement funds should be reviewed in a setting where the privilege against self incrimination is not applicable.”
Hanen wrote that “particular attention should be paid” as to whether there were any violations of Texas law, referring to a statute that addresses the payment of referral fees to a prosecutor.
Hanen wrote that payments in violation of this statute would also be in violation of disciplinary rules.
Following Marchan’s trial in June 2012, Hanen ordered the U.S. Attorney’s Office to cooperate with investigations by the Southern District of Texas and State Bar of Texas into the conduct of individuals associated with the case.
The State Bar of Texas in 2013 issued the first public reprimand, naming state Rep. Rene O. Oliveira, D-37, who was directed to pay $1,500.
The reprimand was the result of a 2008 conversation Oliveira had with Limas, who was a judge at the time. The conversation surfaced during Marchan’s trial.
The ex-parte communication, about resetting a trial date, was held without notice to and outside the presence of counsel for the opposing party, according to the agreed judgment reached by Oliveira and the bar.
Oliveira accepted responsibility, apologized, and said he made an error in judgment.
Hanen also issued an order in May during Villalobos’ trial, writing, “This court has heard over the last two weeks of trial and throughout pretrial hearings a troublesome and disturbing tale of unethical conduct involving judges, lawyers and laypersons.
“This state of affairs was exacerbated by the fact that it has lasted over a number of years and affected numerous cases,” he added.
Hanen said that the court had heard witnesses and seen exhibits that show uncharged illegal acts and violations of disciplinary rules.
“Some of this evidence was presented to the jury and some of it was not,” Hanen also said. “In fact, defense counsel requested, and this court felt duty-bound by law to give an instruction to the jury to disregard these ethical violations in reaching its verdict,” Hanen stated.
“The U.S. Attorneys and federal agents involved in the trial of this case are hereby ordered to provide the appropriate authorities at the State Bar of Texas, Chief Judge Ricardo Hinojosa of the Southern District of Texas and the Chief Judge of the Fifth Circuit or his designee a copy of this order and, if they so request, the evidence of the multiple ethical violations committed by multiple attorneys involved in this case.
“This includes the evidence not presented at trial and covers all attorneys involved, not just the defendant,” Hanen ordered.
He continued: “This court has great admiration for the trial bar and the benefits that trial lawyers (both prosecution and defense) provide to society. It is their vigilance, among others, that ensures that the system of justice works and that the rights of all Americans are protected.”
“That being said, nothing can do more harm to society than an individual, (or a group of individuals) armed with a law license (or working for someone armed with a law license) that has no moral compass, no respect for the rules governing ethical conduct and no respect for the truth. Some of the acts or omissions may be considered minor; some may have been inadvertent,” Hanen wrote.
“Nevertheless, there were some acts that were neither minor nor accidental mistakes, and the individuals that committed these acts, in this Court’s opinion, should not be allowed to practice law anywhere.”