Sunday, November 12, 2017

"The Last Time I Checked, South Texas Is Still In The United States Of America"

The Texas Bar Journal reports the resignation of a recently-convicted attorney.

The San Antonio Express-News covered the trial

In his closing argument to the jury in the public corruption case against two former Crystal City officials, a federal prosecutor turned the words of defendant James Jonas against him.

“He said, ‘Welcome to South Texas,’” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hulings reminded jurors Friday, saying it was a lawless attitude that pervaded the case.

 “They meant, that’s the way things are and always have been,” Hulings said in a later interview. “Nothing has ever been investigated or prosecuted. We’ll get away with it.”

But, Hulings went on to tell the jury, “The last time I checked, South Texas is still in the United States of America. And we’re a country built on the rule of law.”

 After four hours of deliberation that went into Monday, the jury apparently took the message to heart and convicted Jonas, a former Crystal City manager and city attorney, and former Mayor Ricardo Lopez, on all 18 counts they faced in indictments handed up in February 2016.

In returning the guilty verdicts on charges including fraud, bribery and conspiracy, the panel apparently put aside defense claims that the two men were unfairly targeted by the government.

After reading the verdict in the weeklong trial, U.S. District Judge Alia Moses ordered the pair taken into custody. Jonas, 55, and Lopez, 41, both in gray suits, were handcuffed and led away by U.S. marshals.

Some of the charges carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison. A sentencing date hasn’t yet been set.

On hand to observe the verdict were a handful of Crystal City public officials, several of whom had fought against a group that supported Jonas.

“It’s been a long, hard journey to get to this point. We’ve come to the end of another chapter,” Mayor Frank Moreno said

“Hopefully, this will allow our community to come together,” added Moreno, who four years ago began complaining of illegal conduct among city officials, including Jonas.

Another official, City Councilman Joel Barajas, recalled serving on the council as the only member who was not loyal to Jonas.

“I was ignored. I got no information, no reports, no agendas. I always felt he was in charge,” Barajas said of Jonas.

The only person among the spectators to support Jonas was Abner Rodriguez, 42, pastor of the Laredo English Seventh Day Adventist Church.

“I don’t know very much about the case, but I do know Mr. Jonas. He’s a very caring man, a righteous man and a God-fearing man,” said Rodriguez, who said he has been counseling Jonas and his wife by telephone in recent months.

Jonas was a former prominent Republican lobbyist who was down on his luck and who owed $12,000 a month in child support when he was hired as city attorney in 2012, despite having no municipal experience.

He soon added the role of city manager, and his salary eventually climbed to $216,000 a year, about three times what the low-income city of 7,500 had been spending on the two positions previously.

Jonas quickly alienated a sizable faction in Crystal City, and toward the end of his tenure, he was receiving threats and required armed policemen at council meetings.

Other defendants in the case — three councilmen and an 8-liner operator — had already pleaded guilty and have yet to be sentenced. Jonas and Lopez declined plea offers and elected to go to trial.

While neither Jonas nor Lopez took the stand, they were very much present as the case unfolded, in secret recordings that provided irrefutable evidence for the government’s case.

In one recording, which captured an exchange between Jonas and civil engineer Dan Hejl, who was working undercover for the government, there is little ambiguity about what was happening.

“I brought some cash here to help you out,” Hejl says on a recording as he hands Jonas an envelope of money.

“Well, your timing could not have been more exquisite,” Jonas replies.

Later, the two discussed the payment arrangement, which Hejl insists is merely an expression of his friendship.

“It’s never conditional on you being helpful, but it’s all part of the relationship,” he says, to which Jonas replies, “It’s the glue that keeps the team together.”

Jonas was also caught in recordings trying to set up a $20,000 kickback from Manny Pelaez, the new District 8 councilman in San Antonio, who was cooperating with authorities.

The kickback was supposed to come from a $60,000 fee that Jonas wanted Pelaez to charge a solar energy company seeking to do a project in Crystal City, best known for being the birthplace of the Raza Unida Party.

During a series of recorded conversations, Jonas and Pelaez brainstormed on how to hide the $20,000 payment with false bookkeeping. The proposed schemes ranged from Jonas becoming an unnamed legal assistant to the purchase of expensive show dogs.

Ultimately, the solar project fell through before any legal fees were paid, but not before the kickback scheme was documented in recordings.

In one particularly ironic wrinkle, Pelaez said Jonas wanted him to present the project to the council, instead of the solar company president, who happened to be Anglo.

“He wanted me to be the face of the project when it came to dealing with the City Council. He said the City Council pretty much only speaks Spanish and they don’t trust Anglos down there,” Pelaez testified.

But the city conducts most of its public business in English, and Jonas was its most prominent Anglo official.

jmaccormack@express-news.net

(Mike Frisch) 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_profession/2017/11/the-texas-bar-journal-reports-the-resignation-of-a-recently-convicted-attorney-the-san-antonio-express-journal-covered-the.html

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