SAN ANTONIO — After hundreds of legal filings and three separate trial delays, Democratic state Sen. Carlos Uresti will finally get his day in court next week to face felony charges of fraud and money laundering.
Jury selection begins Thursday in the criminal case against Uresti, a two-decade veteran of the Texas Legislature charged with 11 felonies. The case is rooted in the San Antonio lawmaker’s ties to FourWinds Logistics, a now-bankrupt frac sand company alleged to have been a Ponzi scheme.
Uresti — a personal injury lawyer who took notes on a yellow legal pad alongside his three defense attorneys at a pretrial hearing Wednesday — performed legal services for FourWinds and owned 1 percent of the company. He also earned commission for attracting investors to the organization, according to court documents.
Questions about Uresti’s alleged misconduct at FourWinds were first raised publicly in August 2016 in a San Antonio Express-News investigation. Investors accused the company — which purported to sell sand for use in the process of hydraulic fracking — of misrepresenting its financial health and misspending investor money on frivolous personal expenses.
Despite the allegations, the powerful Senate Democrat sailed to re-election in his district in fall 2016, winning 56 percent of the vote.
Just months later, in February 2017, the FBI raided Uresti's office. Then, in May, he was indicted on felony charges punishable by a combined total of more than 100 years in prison. Throughout the proceedings, Uresti has maintained his innocence — and his lawyers said this week they look forward to proving it.
“Much will come out this coming two weeks that will demonstrate Senator Uresti was not guilty of what he is being charged,” defense attorney Michael McCrum said.
But the case against Uresti took a surprising turn last week when Stanley Bates — a co-defendant and the former CEO of FourWinds — pleaded guilty to multiple felony charges, including money laundering and securities fraud. It’s not clear what impact that plea could have on Uresti; Bates had previously asked to be tried separately, with his defense attorney arguing that Bates' co-defendants would shift the blame onto him.
Bates could now be called to testify against his former FourWinds colleagues, a decision that will be made before opening arguments on Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Blackwell said.
Felony convictions disqualify elected officials from serving in Texas, according to Section 141.001 of the Texas Election Code. If convicted, Uresti could retain his seat during the appeals process, but after a final conviction, the governor would call a special election. Uresti isn’t up for re-election until 2020.
Uresti’s attorneys would not comment on their legal strategy for the upcoming trial but said they look forward to proving their client's innocence. Uresti’s witness list includes more than three dozen names, many of them prominent players in San Antonio politics, headed up by state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. An even longer list of witnesses who may be called to the stand includes Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Republican Comptroller Glenn Hegar and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo.
One key witness for the prosecution will be Denise Cantu, who claims FourWinds defrauded her out of the bulk of the $900,000 she invested with the company in 2014. Cantu had won that money years earlier in a wrongful death suit in which Uresti represented her. Prosecutors argue that Uresti used his advisory role to Cantu — as well as a sexual relationship that he has denied — to manipulate her into investing in FourWinds.
Uresti has faced criticism in recent months over allegations of sexual harassment at the state Legislature. The prominent Texas women’s group Annie’s List called on the senator last month to resign. He has denied any misbehavior. U.S. District Judge David Ezra ruled Wednesday that no allegations of sexual misconduct against Uresti will be permitted in court, though the prosecution is free to discuss Uresti’s alleged intimacy with Cantu.