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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Counsel in Bribery Case Has Conflict of Interest

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CN) - A lawyer accused of colluding with a South Texas prosecutor in a bribery and extortion scheme must obtain new counsel, a federal judge ruled.

In a May 2012 indictment, the United States charged former Cameron County district and county attorney Armando Villalobos and his former law partner Eduardo "Eddie" Lucio of manipulating criminal case proceedings in exchange for bribes and kickbacks.

Villalobos generated illicit funds via "favorable acts of prosecutorial discretion, including but not limited to, minimizing charging decisions, pretrial diversion agreements, agreements on probationary matters, and case dismissals," according to a superseding indictment filed in January 2013.

Lucio initially faced one count of violating the RICO Act, one count of conspiracy to violate the RICO Act, three counts of extortion and two counts of honest services fraud for his alleged role in the scheme. The grand jury has since narrowed his charges to five counts.

In March 2013, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen severed the claims against Lucio, a licensed attorney, from those against Villalobos.

Lucio sought a change of venue, but Hanen found that he lacked evidence to show that the negative portrayal of Villalobos in the media jeopardized his ability to have a fair trial.

"The remaining and most pressing issue for proceeding to trial in this matter and, most importantly, for ensuring that said trial be conducted fairly, is the resolution of defense counsel's continued representation," Hanen wrote in March.

Sixth Amendment rights - counsel of choice versus effective counsel - guided Hanen's ruling.

The judge had even noted concerns that admission of an intercepted conversation between Lucio's attorney, John Blaylock, and former State District Judge Abel Limas might result in Blaylock testifying against his client.

"In said conversation, former Judge Limas and Mr. Blaylock discuss Judge Limas' re-election campaign and, particularly, the adverse effect that the escape of a criminal defendant sentenced in Judge Limas' court may have," Hanen wrote. "In count four of the indictment, the government alleges that defendants Lucio and Villalobos aided and abetted Hobbs Act extortion by enabling Judge Limas to obtain illicit monies in exchange for remaining silent with regards to the circumstances that led to this criminal defendant's flight from this jurisdiction. The court noted in open court, and reiterates here, that it does not believe, based solely upon its review of the call in question, that the intercepted communication involved any illegal or unethical conduct on the part of Mr. Blaylock. The court remains concerned, however, that because the overall content of the communication supports the government's theory of motive to commit the crime alleged in count four of the indictment, the recording could be admissible at trial. Certainly the government has indicated that it reserves the right to use this recording in rebuttal. Further, Mr. Blaylock could conceivably be a witness at trial."

Lucio retained Blaylock in spite of this potential conflict of interest, prompting Hanen to order the defendant to meet with an independent attorney and discuss the issue.

Since Lucio stuck with the lawyer after this decision, Hanen disqualified Blaylock from representing Lucio in a 29-page order last week.

"At the same time, however, Lucio has refused to waive any conflict of interest under which Blaylock is, or may eventually operate; in fact, Lucio's position is that the conflicts are 'unwaiveable,'" Hanen wrote. "The only conclusion that this court can reach from this inherent contradiction is that Lucio, in effect, is trying to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to have an appellate issue regardless of the way this court rules. That being the case, the court is now forced to resolve the question."

Lucio claimed the government manufactured the conflict, thus calling for sanctions. Hanen denied the request, however, after finding that Lucio had no factual basis to back the claim.

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