If convicted, one-term state Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra could be trading in her pantsuit for a jumpsuit.
The South Padre Island Democrat was indicted last month and temporarily placed in federal custody for her alleged involvement in a Medicaid fraud scheme. (She had lost her bid for re-election in the March primary — due, at least in part, to a highly publicized intimate relationship with a campaign contributor.) She joins a good-sized list of Texas politicians also indicted on corruption charges who await their days of judgment with uncertainty.
Texas has seen a slew of corruption investigations and indictments in recent years. Probes have unearthed scandals at Dallas City Hall and the El Paso County Courthouse and, of course, the campaign finance charges that brought down former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. But most of the high-profile public officials involved remain in pre-trial purgatory. Though the public may perceive them as open-and-shut cases, the raft of unresolved Texas public corruption investigations underscores the difficulty and complexity of such probes.
Investigating and prosecuting public corruption cases, which often involve intricate and well-disguised white-collar crime schemes, can give fits to federal and local investigators. Money and staff get stretched by competing priorities. And the stakes are high, with the reputations of both the accused politicians and the prosecutors on the line. Investigations often proceed in secret for years before indictments. The prosecution phase can take even longer, with gamesmanship over potential plea deals and the extended motions, appeals and postponements by powerful defense attorneys fighting to salvage the political careers — and reputations — of their clients. In the meantime, the public is left to decide the immediate fate of an indicted-but-not-convicted elected official, whose career can be destroyed by a state of limbo. “The indictment itself will sometimes be [a] death knell,” said Paul Coggins, who was a U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas during the Clinton years. Even if the indictment results in an acquittal, “[elected officials] must ask themselves where they get their reputations back,” he said, alluding to former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan’s famous rejoinder after his own acquittal on corruption charges in 1987.
Despite the number and duration of high-profile corruption cases in Texas recently, it's difficult to quantify any broader trend. According to a recent piece in the online publication The Daily Beast, Texas doesn’t hold a candle to Louisiana or New Jersey when it comes to public corruption — it was ranked the 27th most corrupt state in the nation. And Texans don’t seemed too worried about it — in an October 2009 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, only 7 percent of Texans cited public corruption as the most important issue facing the state. Roy Minton, the attorney for indicted Democratic state Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, has defended countless elected officials in 50 years of practicing law, but he doesn’t think times are all that different. “We’ll have years where we have a whole lot of it, years where we’ll have very little and years where we don’t have any at all. We have had a considerable number in the past seven or eight years,” he acknowledged, “but the atmosphere hasn’t changed much.”
Gilbert Sanchez can relate to Rios Ybarra’s predicament. Last year, the El Paso County district clerk and his co-defendant Luther Jones, a former state representative and county judge, were indicted on five federal charges; three of them were dropped last October. According to prosecutors, Jones and Sanchez rigged a county contract worth $53 million for a company Jones represented. While waiting for his day in court, Sanchez lost his bid for re-election in April. He then filed to have his court date moved to March of next year, claiming he was mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Flores, once a House chairman and dealmaker, decided not to run for re-election after charged with failing to disclose sources of income. A year after the indictment, Flores’ political career is on hold. Minton insists his client broke no laws. “He did not leave anything off his [financial statement forms] that is required by the state to report,” he said. A pretrial hearing for Flores was held on Wednesday.
But some have managed to carry on defiantly and live comfortably — for years — amid the cloud of post-indictment, pre-trial purgatory.
Take DeLay. The former Republican House majority leader was indicted on conspiracy and money laundering charges in 2005, and he resigned from his leadership post. Prosecutors allege that DeLay and two other defendants conspired to launder corporate money during the 2002 elections to guarantee a Republican majority in the Texas House.
DeLay’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin, maintains that his client has been ready to go to trial for quite some time. “It’s taken so long because the DA appealed the ruling of the district judge about the original charges against DeLay not even being a law when the conduct occurred,” DeGuerin said.
In 2008, the state's 3rd Court of Appeals ruled that because the alleged campaign finance violation involved checks as opposed to cash, the charges against DeLay did not apply: The contributions occurred before the Legislature amended the law in 2003 to include checks. But then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle appealed the decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s decision. Earle has since retired. Eight years after the investigation began and five years after the charges were filed, a pre-trial hearing has been set for Aug. 24.
DeLay’s career as an elected official may be over, but he has managed to remain in the limelight. In 2007, he published a book, No Retreat, No Surrender: One American’s Fight, in which he defended himself against the charges — even comparing liberals to Adolf Hitler. He rose to B-list celebrity stardom when he participated in Dancing With the Stars. No stranger to controversy, DeLay has also been one of the most prominent Republicans to promote the theory that President Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen.
Fed up in El Paso
Most elected officials in Texas indicted on corruption charges don’t get book deals or spots on reality TV shows. If anything, their notoriety has spurred calls for reform across the state. El Paso knows this all too well. Over the past six years, the El Paso County Courthouse has been the subject of a massive FBI investigation. In addition to Sanchez, two judges have been indicted on corruption charges.
In April 2009, only three months after taking office, former District Judge Manuel Barraza was charged and found guilty of taking bribes and soliciting sexual favors from criminal defendants in his court. Barraza was also indicted, along with suspended District Court Judge Regina Arditti, on charges of nepotism; Barraza allegedly hired Arditti’s son as bailiff in exchange for Arditti hiring Barraza’s sister to her staff. Barraza is currently serving five years in a federal prison in Pennsylvania for his previous conviction. No trial date has been set for the pending charges against the two district judges.
As a result of the investigation, citizens and legislators in El Paso have forced the corruption issue to the community's center stage, forming the Citizens’ Commission on Best Practices in Government last year. Composed of business and civic leaders, the commission hosted an open forum in September 2009 to discuss public corruption in the city. More than 400 citizens came to voice their concerns, according to Eduardo Rodriguez, the de facto executive director of the commission.
“I think clearly the first step, as with anything, is to recognize you have a problem, and to begin figuring out how you’re going to tackle the problem,” Rodriguez said, acknowledging that the city has a tough fight ahead to stamp out a culture of corruption. “We’re no longer denying that a problem exists.”
In 2009, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1368, which granted the El Paso County ethics board power to impose stiff penalties on those who violate ethics standards. It's the only county board in the state with that power.
Dallas: Now "too boring"
Dallas City Hall has also been the target of a massive federal investigation, resulting in the indictments of several high-profile politicians in October 2007, including former Democratic state Rep. Terri Hodge. After falling under the scrutiny of federal investigators for tax fraud, Hodge saw her political career disintegrate as she pleaded guilty in February and agreed to never seek political office again. Indicted in 2008, Hodge had struggled to raise campaign funds against her challenger and eventual successor, Eric Johnson, who raised nearly three times as much money. Hodge is currently serving a one-year term in prison.
Earlier this year, Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for his role in a plot to extort a real estate developer competing for a contract in a low-income neighborhood in south Dallas. His wife, Sheila Farrington Hill, is serving nine years in prison for creating phony consulting firm as a front to launder the bribe money.
Under Mayor Tom Leppert, Dallas city government has seen sweeping reforms to combat and deter corruption. “There is now full disclosure,” Leppert told the Tribune. “When someone gets taken out to dinner, when they receive gifts, it goes on public record. My hope in doing that is taxpayers will be in a position to make a judgment.”
The old rules in Dallas put no limits on donations made to city councilmen by individuals bidding for city contracts. Now, the city prohibits contributions during a window of time — two months before and after a hearing on the city deal in question. The new reforms also place greater regulation on lobbyists, who are also subject to full disclosure. Any meeting or conversation between a lobbyist and an elected official must be reported along with the subject of the exchange.
Explaining the transformation of Dallas City Hall, Leppert said: “I once had an older gentleman come up and tell me, ‘I used to watch the city council meetings all the time on public access television. I don’t anymore — they’re too boring.’”