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After four weeks, state Sen. Carlos Uresti's criminal fraud case heads to the jury

Testimony and closing arguments have wrapped up in the criminal trial of state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio. Now a jury will decide whether he's guilty of 11 felony counts.

State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio (center) leaves the federal courthouse in San Antonio with his wife, Lleana Uresti and attorney Tab Turner, on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.

SAN ANTONIO — If a businessman takes the ostrich approach — burying his head in the sand — to avoid evidence that his colleagues are perpetrating a fraud, is he also guilty of that fraud?

Probably — but state Sen. Carlos Uresti is no ostrich, defense attorneys insisted Tuesday morning in their last opportunity to sway the jury.

The San Antonio Democrat, who’s been on trial for the past month on 11 felony counts, including criminal fraud and money laundering, sat expressionless Tuesday morning as prosecutors and defense attorneys quibbled one last time over whether he was aware of the Ponzi scheme being perpetrated at the now-defunct oil field company FourWinds Logistics, where he served as general counsel, a 1 percent owner and a recruiter of investors, according to court documents.

That question is now in the hands of the jury, which began deliberations Tuesday afternoon in a case that has the potential to end Uresti's career in the Senate. 

Standing beneath several courtroom screens showing a colorful cartoon image of one of those ignorant ostriches, Uresti’s attorneys argued the government hadn’t proven that Uresti was aware of the company’s shady dealings — even aware enough to, ostrich-like, intentionally avoid learning more.

And, defense attorneys argued, the jury should take care not to convict Uresti because of preconceived biases against politicians.

The criminal justice system doesn’t convict people “because of foolishness, mistakes or negligence,” defense attorney Tab Turner said. “It takes intentional misconduct. It takes knowledge of a crime. They haven’t proven that knowledge. Don’t supply it for them because a senator’s sitting in the room.”

He paused. “That’s what elections are for.”

The animal metaphor came during closing arguments of the month-long trial. If convicted on any counts, the two-decade veteran of the Texas Legislature would be ineligible to continue serving his district, though he could keep his seat during appeals. He also faces jail time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Prosecutors have argued that Uresti knew about the company’s fraud scheme and that he was in possession of forged financial documents with obvious errors and omissions. Uresti was driven, prosecutors allege, by personal financial struggles to bring investors into a scheme he knew was fraudulent — and he used his reputation as a state legislator to lend credibility to the sketchy investment.

“It’s brought to his attention. He knows the documents are changing — ever-changing. They don’t add up. The sales presentations: lies, lies, lies. The bank statements that happen to perfectly address an investor concern,” said the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Blackwell. “With all that information available to him, he made a choice. He made a choice to bring others to this con man.”

To support their argument, over the last several weeks prosecutors have called more than 20 witnesses, including defrauded investors, former FourWinds associates and FBI personnel. Denise Cantu, the key government witness who lost about $800,000 to FourWinds’ scheme, testified earlier this month that Uresti leveraged their sexual relationship to persuade her to invest. Uresti has denied that they had an affair.

Defense attorneys have insisted throughout the trial that though fraud plagued FourWinds, Uresti was unaware and uninvolved. Uresti, they said, acted in good faith — and he, like FourWinds’ unfortunate investors, was misled by former CEO Stan Bates. Bates pleaded guilty to eight felonies last month.

“Not one person sat on that witness stand and said, ‘Carlos Uresti knew we were doing this,’” Turner told the jury Tuesday morning. “Not one witness.”

The government bore the burden of proving Uresti guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Arguing that prosecutors had not met this standard, the defense has asked U.S. District Judge David Ezra twice this month to dismiss the case.

Ezra refused both times. He told attorneys there was “a lot of telling evidence” against Uresti. The judge listened to most of the closing arguments Tuesday reclined in his chair with his arms folded over his chest.

Still, defense attorneys revisited that argument Tuesday morning, spending a large chunk of their argument time defining terms like “reasonable doubt” and criminal “intent” to demonstrate that the government had not sufficiently proven Uresti’s guilt.

Uresti is also set for trial in May on separate bribery charges.

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Courts Politics State government Carlos "Charlie" Uresti