BROWNSVILLE, Texas — A former South Texas prosecutor facing corruption charges was essentially a "district attorney on retainer" who used his discretion in exchange for cash, federal prosecutors told jurors Monday while laying out their case against the one-time aspiring congressman.
Armando Villalobos is the highest-profile target to stand trial in a FBI investigation into legal corruption in Cameron County. And in an image that seemed to encapsulate the years-long case, Villalobos' former mentor and boss — an already convicted former state district judge — was prosecutors' first witness in the trial.
The county's former top prosecutor is facing extortion and racketeering charges, including accusations that one of his schemes unintentionally helped a convicted murderer escape following his trial. The convict hasn't been seen since.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wynne told jurors in his opening statement that the cash payments Villalobos accepted in return for using his prosecutorial discretion amounted to "having a district attorney on retainer."
"You pay him in advance so when you need him, he's there," Wynne told jurors at the federal courthouse in Brownsville.
But Villalobos' defense attorney described his client as a caring, charitable man who was trying to reorganize an overwhelmed office. He said the government collected about 44,000 recorded phone calls during its investigation, but that none would implicate Villalobos.
"This is not the greedy person the government is trying to portray," defense attorney Joel Androphy told jurors in his opening statement, estimating that more than 100,000 cases came through Villalobos' office during his tenure as district attorney.
But prosecutors alleged that in one cash-making scheme, former state District Judge Abel Limas agreed to work with Villalobos and Villalobos' former law partner, Eddie Lucio, in the criminal and civil cases involving Amit Livingston. Livingston was convicted of killing his girlfriend, Hermila Hernandez, in 2007.
Investigators said the trio's target was the $500,000 bond put up for Livingston's release before trial. Federal prosecutors allege that Villalobos set up Lucio to represent Hernandez's three children in their lawsuit against Livingston, and the criminal and civil cases both landed in Limas' courtroom. Limas agreed to convict and sentence Livingston on the same day, thereby freeing up the bond to be used as the settlement in the lawsuit.
However, Limas also agreed that day to Livingston's request that he have 60 days to get his affairs in order before reporting to prison. That meant Livingston was released without bond — highly unusual for a convicted killer already sentenced to decades in prison. Livingston didn't report to prison as scheduled, and he hasn't been seen since.
Lucio received $200,000 in attorney's fees for handling the civil case. Prosecutors said he kicked $80,000 back to Villalobos and together they gave about $10,000 to Limas to keep quiet. Lucio also is facing charges in the case.
On Monday, Limas testified that the first payment of $5,000 came from Villalobos inside a McDonald's bag.
"We had smoothed things out," Limas said. "I just kept my mouth shut."
Limas made clear that his real concern when he heard Livingston had fled was his re-election as judge. He called the fugitive a "political hot potato."
Phone call recordings of conversations between Limas and his friends played during cross-examination illustrated those worries. At one point he suspected Villalobos had made a complaint to the state judicial commission about his behavior in the case, but he later decided it was the woman running for his seat on the bench. In profanity-filled calls, Limas railed against his opponent and accused a local newspaper reporter of having it out for him for continuing to write about the Livingston case.
"Politically, I was done," Limas testified.
Androphy, Villalobos' attorney, hammered Limas about his selective memory and noted that his testimony was motivated by his hope of receiving a lighter sentence. Under cross-examination, Androphy focused on Limas' decision while a judge to give Livingston 60 days to get his affairs in order after his sentence.
"Your word and reputation aren't that good anymore," Androphy told Limas.
Testimony revealed, however, that Livingston had taken advantage of an orientation-type program within the Texas corrections systems and made a visit to a facility before disappearing.
Cross-examination of Limas will continue Tuesday.