Fall of Cameron County Justice System

Some have called it one of the most disturbing scandals ever in Cameron County.

It TMs a scandal that captured national headlines.

State District Judge Abel Limas, County District Attorney Armando Villalobos and respected lawyers from the Rio Grande Valley and even as far as Austin, indicted by the federal government for an alleged elaborate scheme of bribery and corruption in the courts of the Cameron County justice system.

"It kept spreading, University of Texas at Brownsville

Emeritus History Professor Anthony Knopp said. It seemed to encompass a larger number of people and people who either had or had held important positions, elected positions."

The federal corruption investigation began in 2008 when agents tapped the former 404th District Court Judge TMs cell phone.

But Knopp said that to some, the charges of racketeering against Limas, came as no surprise.

"Judge Limas was opened for business, Knopp said. In other words, the word was spreading around that he was taking money and using his judicial position to favor some people against other people."

The FBI had compiled a slew of evidence against Limas including phone calls revealing codes which Limas confessed to creating to make garner bribes, in return for favorable judgments in his court room.

Limas had little choice and plead guilty in March 2011, to accepting $257,300 in bribes. He also struck a deal with the government in return for a lighter jail sentence.

As part of the deal, Limas agreed to forfeit his personal assets and property and also agreed to out those he claims were allegedly part of the elaborate racketeering scheme in his court.

The FBI followed up by indicting middleman Jose Manuel Longoria, bondsman Francisco Cisneros, probationer Armando Pena, his wife Karina Pena, DA Investigator Jaime Munivez.

Also, attorneys Joe Valle, Marc Rosenthal, former State Rep. Jose Santiago Solis or Jim Solis.

Attorney Ray Marchan was also indicted and found guilty on June 18, on seven federal counts including racketeering, conspiracy and aiding and abetting.

"It's hard to ignore things you as a human being see as obvious, they told us to also follow our instinct because in the end that's what it is, said one of the jurors that convicted Marchan.

She said things were pretty clear to her since early on in the trial.

"The evidence was there, it was presented to us, we heard it, we saw it, the juror said. Through the check, phone call logs, the audio - we heard it."

One of the most convincing pieces of evidence according to the juror, were the recorded phone calls between Limas and Marchan

"Marchan calls Limas on a phone call and they're talking about money and he asked Limas, 'so how do you want me to make this? Do you want me to make this as a loan, and to who? To your wife or a third person? TM

Although Marchan's defense told jurors it was just a conversation between two friends - one asking the other for help in times of need - this juror said the tactics weren't fooling anyone.

"It was just very clear to me that he was very comfortable asking him for favors, so that means that it wasn't the first time."

Attorney and former Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra is no stranger to controversy himself. He once took goats to the footsteps of the courthouse to prove a point.

But he agrees with the federal juror that obviously something had been going on for a while.

"They are prostitutes, Guerra said. All these lawyers and judges are prostitutes because they have prostituted themselves."

Guerra also claims the alleged corruption is weaved throughout the entire county justice system.

"Almost 100 percent of the elected officials here in Cameron are looking the other way, Guerra claims. When that happens - that's when you have this chaos."

Guerra said all lawyers and judges take an oath to report any crime committed. However, he adds, it TMs the fear of being ostracized that keeps many from doing so.

Professor Knopp agrees.

"I think there's a fear that you would get a reputation as somebody who might talk out of turn, somebody who can TMt be trusted to keep his mouth shut in the legal community," Knopp said.

What about the elected official that people voted for and trusted to do the right thing in order to preserve their justice system?

Villalobos continues to maintain his innocence since being indicted in May. He won TMt go to trial until 2013.

Guerra said Villalobos should've stepped down or ordered to step down following his indictment.

The federal juror wonders if justice can ever be served in Cameron county.

"Especially for working people like us, that we don TMt have the means to pay them off, she said. I mean if I go to their court, am I going to lose a lawsuit, am I going to go to jail just because I don TMt have the money to pay them off, because the other side does? That's what makes you think. Greed makes people do really bad things."

Knopp said it will take some time before the Cameron County justice system recovers from this demise, but adds corruption will never completely disappear.

Guerra poses a more drastic approach through the power of voting.

"I TMm sorry, but if you're there and you don TMt know what your guy is doing over there, I don TMt want you there, Guerra said. And the people should've gotten rid of all the judges."

This juror said that may be easier said than done, because even when the evidence was in black and white, some jurors still struggled during the two and a half days of deliberation for Marchan TMs verdict.

"The main concern for some of them was that his career will end, the juror said. (They were worried) that they would send a person to jail, (or that the) person was going to lose everything they had. Some of them didn TMt want to judge someone (else) because that TMs not who they are."

It was tough she said but in the end, it was there it was obvious and I think we came up with the right decision," she adds.

Where are they now?- Longoria has been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison- Cisneros is sentenced to 16 months in federal prison- Pena is sentenced to 27 months in federal prison- Karina Pena is sentenced to four years probation and 200 hours of community service- Munivez was sentenced to one year in federal prison- Attorney Jose Valle began his one year sentence in June- Solis is awaiting sentencing on November 16- Marchan is awaiting sentence- Rosenthal is charged with counts including extortion racketeering and mail fraud and is awaiting trial- Limas is expected to testify in the Rosenthal trial and is awaiting sentence- Villalobos maintains his innocence and is awaiting trial. His term as district attorney expires at the end of 2012.