Posted: Jun 5, 2012 11:20 AM
Updated: Jun 5, 2012 11:20 AM
BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) Opening statements at the first trial stemming from a broad federal investigation of judicial corruption in South Texas made clear Tuesday that the focus will be on the crooked judge who was the probe's original target as much as on the lawyer facing the jury.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wynne told jurors that former state district Judge Abel C. Limas was not on trial, Port Isabel lawyer Ray Marchan is. But even in Wynne's opening remarks, Limas' name arose repeatedly. Limas, who was expected to be a star prosecution witness, has pleaded guilty to racketeering and awaits sentencing.
Marchan faces seven counts, including racketeering and conspiracy, and is accused of paying bribes totaling more than $11,000 to Limas in 2008.
The FBI began investigating Limas in late 2007 and had wiretaps on his home and cellphones for most of 2008 that intercepted some 40,000 calls.
"There's enough that was intercepted to give you a very good idea of what Mr. Limas and other attorneys were doing in abusing the court system and paying for official action," Wynne said.
Now in its fourth year, the federal investigation into how Limas turned his Brownsville courtroom into a money generator has swept up a dozen people.
Marchan paid Limas twice in 2008 in order to be appointed as ad litem attorney in civil cases, according to the indictment. The third payment, also that year, was a case in which Limas denied an opposing attorney's motion for $21,000 in sanctions against Marchan in exchange for $5,000 from Marchan.
Wynne said the government has audio recordings and photographs of Limas coming to Marchan's office to pick up the bribes.
But Noe Garza, Marchan's lawyer, immediately attacked Limas' credibility as a witness. He said Limas was carrying more than $400,000 in debt after his last election campaign. Garza said Limas' wife and kids were involved in illegal activity and to keep them out of prison, he began telling investigators what they wanted to hear in 17 separate interviews with the FBI.
"I will not stand here and deny that Mr. Marchan did give (Limas) money," Garza said. Marchan, a long-time friend, gave Limas money to help with his debts, Garza said.
Marchan, a Stanford law graduate, pleaded not guilty last June. The government is seeking forfeiture of at least $57,000 from Marchan.
He is one of six lawyers, in addition to Limas, who have been charged in the federal probe. One, Jose Santiago "Jim" Solis, is a former state legislator who pleaded guilty to an extortion charge and awaits sentencing. Another is Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, who faces twelve counts of corruption-related charges and just lost his bid for the Democratic nomination to a new congressional seat last week.
Before openings Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen dismissed one juror who revealed after the jury was selected that she was enrolled in summer school. One of the two alternate jurors will fill that slot.