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Judge Ends Houston Bribery Trial

May 22, 1998

HOUSTON (AP) _ A mistrial has been declared in the trial of five politicians accused of taking or handing out bribes to influence a key City Council vote on a construction project.

U.S. District Judge David Hittner ended the trial Thursday after jurors said they could not reach a verdict. Prosecutors in the nation’s fourth-largest city vowed to retry the case.

The case stemmed from an FBI sting in which undercover operatives posed as minority businessmen wanting to invest in the hotel project. They allegedly passed cash to the politicians to secure their support.

Defense attorneys had argued their clients were entrapped.

The defendants were City Councilmen John Castillo and Michael Yarbrough, former Councilmen Ben Reyes and John Peavy Jr. and former Port Commissioner Betti Maldonado.

Castillo was accused of taking $6,000. Peavy, a former state district judge, was accused of taking $5,000 and Yarbrough $3,000.

Reyes allegedly took $50,000 to identify council members who could be bought and help distribute the bribes. Prosecutors argued he made several payoffs, meeting with council members in the men’s room of a Houston restaurant.

Ms. Maldonado also allegedly made a $3,000 payoff to Castillo.

The government presented video and audiotapes in which the councilmen were seen accepting cash-filled envelopes. In one videotape, Reyes was seen accepting a satchel stuffed with $50,000.

Defense attorneys argued their clients were tricked into accepting the cash and believed the money was intended as legal campaign contributions. Reyes told jurors he thought the money was a legal real estate investment.

Defense attorneys also attacked the credibility of undercover FBI operative Julio Molineiro, noting he had convictions for robbery, fraud and embezzlement in Chile and Paraguay and other outstanding arrest warrants in those countries.

A sixth defendant, lobbyist Ross Allyn, was acquitted midway through the trial because of a lack of evidence. Defense attorneys pointed to the acquittal as evidence that their clients were targeted because they are minorities. Allyn is white. The others are black or Hispanic.

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