Former DA's staff testify in corruption trial - The Monitor: News

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Posted: Monday, May 20, 2013 9:15 am

Then-assistant district attorneys and others testified that they did as they were told by their boss and friend, Armando R. Villalobos, as protocols and legal requirements allegedly were being thwarted.

“I just followed orders,” attorney Al Padilla testified Friday in federal court in Brownsville as the trial of Villalobos, the former Cameron County district attorney, continues.

Villalobos, sometimes slightly rocking in his chair, has been hearing what some former friends and assistant district attorneys (ADAs) have to say through testimony up to Saturday, Day 6 of his trial.

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 from October 2006 through May 3, 2012, in return for access and favorable treatment.

Padilla, who served as ADA under Villalobos in 2007-2008, was responsible for the asset-forfeiture cases.

He testified to the seizure by Villalobos’ Special Operation Group (SOG) of $901,365 and the tractor-trailer (where it was found) owned by Julio Villarreal on June 28, 2008.

In seizing property when no claim is made to it, legal notice is provided to ensure an effort is made to locate the owners and an ad litem can be appointed at a relatively minimal cost to represent the interest of absent owners, Padilla explained. Even if an ad-litem is appointed, the property can go to the state by default.

The process that is followed when a claim to the seized property is made is to go through the discovery.

“I did not handle most of the aspects of this case,” Padilla testified of the money and tractor-trailer case.

Attorney Oscar de la Fuente Jr. testified earlier that Villalobos arranged it so that he, De la Fuente, represented the passenger of the tractor-trailer, Ricardo Chavez, although he disclaimed an interest in the property. Villalobos’ former law partner Eduardo “Eddie” Lucio represented the driver, Rafael Sanchez III, who also disclaimed an interest.

Padilla, on questions posed by prosecutors, said that it would not have been difficult for the state to obtain a judgment and forfeiture of all the money and the tractor-trailer because the occupants of the tractor-trailer had disclaimed an interest. “Normally, people don’t walk around with a million dollars,” Padilla said.

The public record reflects that the state filed the petition for forfeiture in ex-357th District Judge Leonel Alejandro’s court on June 30, 2008, two days after the seizure. An answer was filed for Chavez on July 10, 2008, and for Sanchez on July 11, 2008. By Aug. 8, 2008, the forfeiture was settled.

De la Fuente testified that Julio Villarreal got his trailer back, he and Lucio subsequently received $42,000 each purportedly for their clients for a combined total of $84,000, and the remainder went to the DA’s Office. De la Fuente kept the $42,000, although it had been awarded to his “client” and alleges he kicked back money to Villalobos.

Padilla testified that the settlement document was sent to his office for signing, and he said that he signed it in following orders of his bosses. He identified his bosses as Villalobos and then-ADA David Gonzales III, who is now judge of Cameron County Court-at-Law No. 3.

Padilla testified that it had seemed to him “like a lot of money was being returned.”

De la Fuente had testified earlier that he had not talked to Padilla, adding that Villalobos had worked the deal. “I didn’t have to talk to Padilla,” De la Fuente said.

De la Fuente is one of the government’s main witnesses in the case against Villalobos. He has testified that he gave Villalobos $10,000 combined for this case and others.

Money-house case

Villalobos’ SOG, joined by federal officers, made another significant seizure in 2010. They seized $500,000 from a wall in a house believed owned by Julio Villarreal and two female family members. The DA’s Office also seized the house and a second house owned by Villarreal’s family.

De la Fuente has testified that Villalobos told him about the state’s petition for the forfeiture of the funds and that if a response was not filed the money would all go to the state.

ADA Esteban Soto was in charge of forfeiture cases for the DA’s Office at the time.

De la Fuente said that Villalobos in 2011 pressed him to get Julio Villarreal’s signature on the required documentation. De la Fuente said that his then-part-time employee Jose Manuel “Meme” Longoria had obtained the purported signatures of the two women.

Julio Villarreal was in federal prison in Beaumont on a drug-related conviction. De la Fuente said that Villalobos arranged for him and then-ADA Tracy Franklin to travel to Beaumont to get Villarreal’s signature.

De la Fuente said that Villalobos was sending Franklin to facilitate entry to the facility to meet with Villarreal under the guise of having to debrief Villarreal on a pending matter.

Franklin testified that Soto had been in charge of asset-forfeitures.

She testified that Villalobos told her to fly into Houston and drive with De la Fuente to the prison and get a signature from Julio Villarreal and bring it back to the DA’s Office. Her understanding, she said, was that she was being sent because she was going to be transferred to the civil division.

Villalobos, who was supposed to have been in Austin and had planned to meet them in Houston, didn’t make it, she said.

Franklin testified that when De la Fuente and Franklin arrived at the prison and located the area where Villarreal was, she was asked to wait in the hallway and De la Fuente went to meet with Villarreal.

“It felt like a couple of hours,” Franklin testified of the wait.

Franklin testified that there had been no discussion about debriefing. She also testified that after she was transferred to handle bond forfeitures, the attorneys that bypassed her and would go to Villalobos because they did not like the settlements were “John Blaylock, Noe Garza, and Oscar de la Fuente.”

Of the $500,000, De la Fuente received $97,000 and he gave Villarreal $15,000 to pay a federal fine, according to testimony. Also according to testimony, the houses were returned to the two women. De la Fuente didn’t share any of the $97,000 with the women, according to testimony.

In a text, De la Fuente told Villalobos: “I signed the agreement, did the dismissal on my guy get filed,” referring to the dismissal of murder charges against Villarreal’s half-brother Jose Alfredo “Pepe” Villarreal.

Villalobos told De la Fuente to call Ruben Peña, according to testimony. Peña had been appointed attorney pro tem on the Villarreal murder case at Villalobos’ recommendation because he claimed to have a conflict, according to testimony.

ADA Rene B. Gonzalez, who served as Villalobos’ chief first assistant district attorney at one time, took the stand Saturday. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Surovic reviewed a memo with Gonzalez from Peña to a Monica G. dated March 16, 2011, where Peña instructed her to prepare a motion to dismiss the cases against Pepe Villarreal.

“Double check with AV to make sure we have it right,” Peña further wrote in the memo. Gonzalez said that AV is Villalobos. Gonzalez testified that a pro tem attorney stands in the stead of the district attorney and “he should act independently.”

Amit Livingston

Villalobos is accused of insisting that convicted murderer Amit Livingston be sentenced the day of conviction to free a $500,000 cash bond in a companion civil wrongful death case, generating income for himself and Lucio, his ex-law partner.

Former ADA Chuck Mattingly was Villalobos’ chief first assistant district attorney, starting in the fall of 2005. Mattingly said he was the trial-team leader on the case.

Mattingly testified that he became aware that a civil lawsuit had been filed, but he didn’t know when or how because he focused on the criminal case.

Asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael J. Wynne how appropriate it is for a DA to get involved in a civil case, Mattingly said that it is not against the law for a district attorney to refer a civil case, but that the district attorney cannot get a referral fee, and if he does, he has to give up an equal part of his salary.

“How about having a hand in how the civil case is resolved? Is it appropriate to have a hand?” Wynne asked.

Amid objections, the attorneys were called to the bench.

Mattingly testified that in ex-404th Judge Abel C. Limas’ courtroom on Feb. 13, 2007, when Livingston was to be convicted, he told Villalobos that Livingston’s attorneys had asked for 60 days to allow Livingston to take care of matters, Villalobos told him: “‘We need to sentence him today then.’”

Mattingly testified that he didn’t know that Livingston would be sentenced that day.

Asked to name attorneys who would bypass him and go to Villalobos on matters, Mattingly named De la Fuente, Garza, Blaylock, Rick Canales, Mike Trejo, and Ernesto Gamez. “Part of it was because I didn’t budge much,” he said.

Mattingly will continue on the stand Monday.

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