News Column

Web Widens in Federal Case Against Former DA Villalobos

March 26, 2013

Emma Perez-Trevino

Another state district court judge has been tied, in court documents, to the federal case against former Cameron County District Attorney Armando R. Villalobos.

State 444th District Judge David Sanchez is referred to in Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael J. Wynne's notice of the government's intention to offer additional evidence, including testimony and physical evidence, to show motive, opportunity and intent by Villalobos, according to public records.

Sanchez has not been charged, and he did not respond to requests for comment.

According to court records, a Villalobos employee "paid Sanchez $1,000.00 directly," so Sanchez, as special prosecutor, would not contest expunging the state criminal record against the employee.

Sanchez's name surfaced in connection with Villalobos' former employee and one-time Brownsville City Commission candidate 39-year-old Carlos Justino "Justin" Ramos, who now is in a federal prison through February 2016 on a drug-trafficking charge.

Villalobos is charged with a total of 12 counts: racketeering, conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, three counts of honest services fraud and seven counts of extortion.

Villalobos' trial is scheduled to begin with jury selection on May 1, with the trial itself on May 13.

Villalobos' attorney Joel Androphy said Monday: "When the government starts adding extraneous matters, it's generally because they are desperate in their case," adding that this shows lack of confidence, otherwise, "they wouldn't try to invent additional allegations."

Wynne and other federal prosecutors in the case do not comment on pending cases.

The federal case against Villalobos, and his former law partner Eduardo "Eddie" Lucio arises from the government's inquiry into ex-404th state District Judge Abel C. Limas, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering, has been cooperating with the government, and awaits sentencing.

Villalobos served as district attorney from 2005 through 2012.

Carlos Justino Ramos case

According to federal prosecutors, Villalobos hired Ramos, who he had known in political circles to work in the DA's office in the spring if 2005, and had DA investigator Joe Lopez, who now is a city commissioner in Rio Hondo, issue Ramos an investigator's badge.

Ramos, according to public records, was prevented from carrying a firearm as a result of a criminal record.

Federal prosecutors say Ramos made two cash payments to Villalobos totaling $3,000 to $4,000 to have cases against him resolved or pleaded to lesser charges. One case was dismissed, and Ramos received probation on the other case.

Prosecutors further allege that Villalobos prepared the necessary documents, or had it prepared, to expunge Ramos' conviction, and arranged "directly through the clerk's office to have the expungement petition land in Abel Limas' court," according to court records.

Villalobos also appointed Sanchez, a practicing attorney at the time, as a special prosecutor to handle the case.

"Ramos met with Limas in chambers, and Limas agreed to sign off on the expungement as long as state officials did not 'fight it,'" prosecutors state.

"Ramos paid Sanchez $1,000 directly so Sanchez would not contest the expungement as special prosecutor," federal prosecutors allege, adding that Ramos paid Villalobos $3,000 to facilitate the process for the expungement.

Prosecutors also state that Ramos used drug trafficking money to pay Sanchez and Villalobos, and Ramos would testify that Villalobos knew Ramos was involved in drug trafficking while Ramos was employed by the District Attorney's Office.

"State officials in Austin objected to the effort to expunge Ramos' conviction, and the effort eventually failed," federal prosecutors state.

The prosecutors further noted that Ramos would testify that Villalobos told him they both could make money by referring civil and criminal cases to Lucio.

Dilia Lopez case

The government alleges that Villalobos, already district attorney, referred a 2005 civil case involving his sister-in-law's death to the law firm of Cowen & Bodden. The case was settled for a substantial amount in April 2006. According to prosecutors, Villalobos received a referral fee in two checks, one for $60,000 and the other for $96,000.

The $60,000 check was made payable to attorney Michael Trejo, who was not involved with the case, but funneled the money to Villalobos, the court record states.

"No comment," Trejo said Monday.

Attorney Michael Cowen declined to comment while attorney Conrad Bodden, who now practices with former Brownsville Mayor Eddie Trevino, did not respond to a request for comment.

The $96,000 check was made payable to Camp Street Enterprises, an entity Villalobos created, to receive the money.

"Villalobos funneled the money through Camp Street Enterprises and another entity he created, VPH Investment Trust, steadily transferring money from those accounts to his personal account," the court record states.

According to the court record, the referral fee violated state law, and Villalobos did not report the referral fee on his federal income tax returns, federal prosecutors state.

Other cases

Federal prosecutors allege that Villalobos ordered investigator Lopez to arrange to have the criminal case filed against former-DA Yolanda de Leon in Limas' court. Prosecutors say that this was tied to civil litigation commonly referred to as the defamation/invasion of privacy case filed by Austin attorney Marc G. Rosenthal.

A federal jury in Corpus Christi found Rosenthal guilty of 13 counts of corruption-related offenses in February.

Prosecutors noted that Villalobos filed criminal charges against De Leon violating his oath and abusing his office to provide a potential monetary benefit to certain civil litigation attorneys with whom he was associated and allowing them to gain leverage in the civil case.

De Leon declined to comment Monday. Lopez also declined comment.

Prosecutors further allege that Villalobos improperly used his power to obtain state grand jury subpoenas. The government alleges that after Limas pleaded guilty to racketeering, and when it was evident that Villalobos was likely to be indicted, Villalobos, for his own private interest, had state grand jury subpoenas issued in February 2012 for the telephone records of Limas, Lucio and for former First Assistant DA Chuck Mattingly in connection with the controversial Amit Livingston case.

It also is alleged that Villalobos allowed a conviction to be overturned based on false and misleading information and a redacted copy of a police videotape on behalf of defendant George Alvarez who had pleaded guilty to assault on an officer.

Overturning the conviction enabled Lucio to file a civil lawsuit against the city of Brownsville seeking damages of more than $4 million. The lawsuit is pending.

Federal prosecutors also allege that Villalobos and his then-office manager Michelle Garcia proposed supplementing DA's office employee Jenny Camacho's salary to offset the difference between the rent Camacho was seeking for an apartment that Villalobos wanted to rent from her when he separated from his wife.

Prosecutors state that Camacho refused.

Attempts to locate Garcia and Camacho for comment were unsuccessful.

A hearing is likely to be scheduled in the near future to determine if presiding U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen will admit the additional evidence.

Source: (c)2013 Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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