Texas: Ex-judge testifies in lawyer's corruption trial

By Christopher Sherman

Associated Press

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) -- The former judge at the heart of a four-year federal investigation of judicial corruption told jurors on Thursday that he accepted kickbacks from several attorney friends, including the South Texas lawyer on trial.

Former state District Judge Abel Limas took the stand in Brownsville as a prosecution witness against Port Isabel lawyer Ray Marchan, the first of a dozen indicted in the case to go to trial.

Limas, the government's featured witness, pleaded guilty last year to racketeering and is awaiting sentencing. Marchan faces seven counts, including racketeering and conspiracy.

The trial's details may affirm the public's worst fears about justice behind closed doors, where scales tipped in favor of money exchanges between lawyers and judges not evidence and procedure.

The intercepted conversations between Limas and Marchan played for the jury were profane, cynical chats between buddies about using the system to line their pockets. The amounts weren't huge -- about $11,000 from Marchan -- but Limas testified that Marchan wasn't the only one giving him money, and that, in total, he had taken more than $250,000 in bribes and kickbacks.

Limas 57, grew up in a rough Brownsville neighborhood and majored in criminal justice at the local university. He worked at the same police department as his dad for four years before going to law school, and said he had aspired to be a judge because it was prestigious and "only good people would get elected."

In 2000, Limas was elected as a judge in Brownsville and served eight years on the bench. He said his judge's salary brought in about $8,000 per month. Limas admitted that he liked to gamble, and estimated he made 30 trips to Las Vegas mostly to bet on boxing matches. He said he also had four kids in school and, by 2008, was more than $400,000 in debt.

Marchan, 55, was a respected civil litigator in Brownsville. He had attended Rice University and graduated from Stanford's law school. In 2008, he was going through a divorce, and Limas said he had heard Marchan was headed for his third bankruptcy.

Limas had the authority to appoint guardians ad litem -- lawyers to represent the interests of people -- often children, in cases. In part because Marchan hosted campaign fundraisers for Limas, he appointed his friend to represent a child's interest in a civil lawsuit in 2008.

"It's a good amount most of the time when it's a good case," Limas told jurors. "It's quick, easy money." His closest attorney friends, like Marchan, kicked back some of that money, Limas said.

In addition to Marchan, Limas listed three others from memory who had kicked back money from such appointments. Only one, Joe Valle, has been charged in the investigation and sentenced.

The FBI opened its investigation of Limas in late 2007 and had wiretaps on Limas' cell and home phones in 2008.

Prosecutors say the men decided to help each other make money. Marchan says he was just trying to help a friend.

Prosecutors also showed jurors photographs and copies of banking records they said corresponded with the alleged bribes and kickbacks.

Marchan's lawyer, Noe Garza, emphasized Limas' plea agreement with prosecutors that calls for him to cooperate in the case. He suggested Limas had to cooperate to keep his wife, an early target of the investigation, from being indicted. Limas said she was no longer a target.

Garza asked Limas to distinguish between lawyers who paid him kickbacks and bribes and those who loaned him money while he was a judge. On a large pad of paper beside the jury, Garza listed names for each.

Garza suggested Marchan was one of the friends providing loans.

He played a recorded call from June 2008. In it, Marchan asked Limas if he should make out the check as "a loan to your wife or a loan to somebody?"

Limas told jurors, "How to disguise it, that's what he's asking me."

Published: Mon, Jun 11, 2012