AUSTIN, Texas – There was a time when it paid to be friends with Mauricio Celis, who rustled up clients for Texas' swaggering trial lawyers and contributed generously to Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton.
But now, Celis' friends are running for cover.
The luxury-loving Corpus Christi businessman is under investigation on suspicion of impersonating a lawyer and a sheriff's deputy.
Celis, 36, has a controlling interest in the CGT Law Group of Corpus Christi, a firm that not only has lawyers on staff but provides a variety of auxiliary services: Need a plane to get to a city to sign documents in your lawsuit? Celis will get you one. Need a translator? No problem. Celis is bilingual.
Lawyers who have worked with Celis say he is also well known for flying to disasters around the world and soliciting clients for either CGT lawyers or other plaintiffs' attorneys.
But the Republican state attorney general is suing Celis, claiming he has practiced law without a license. Texas law prohibits anyone from owning a controlling interest in a law firm unless he is a licensed lawyer. Celis also is accused of identifying himself as an attorney in encounters with police.
In addition, Celis is under investigation by a grand jury led by a Democratic prosecutor over allegations he posed as a law officer during a peculiar run-in with Corpus Christi police.
In that case, police reported that a naked woman ran from Celis' home to a convenience store, claiming she had been in a hot tub and groped against her will. Celis quickly followed her into the store, wearing a bathrobe. He flashed a sheriff's deputy badge from a nearby county and told police at the store that he would take custody of the woman, police said.
Last month, Democrat Mikal Watts, a successful trial lawyer who has taken cases referred to him by Celis, dropped out of the race for the Senate shortly after the Celis scandal broke, citing the strain of the race on his children. And other Democratic candidates have given contributions from Celis to charity, or have come under pressure to do so.
Celis, his lawyer and CGT employees did not return calls from The Associated Press for comment.
Celis' enemies have dismissed him as just a "runner," or worse, an ambulance-chaser, for the state's powerful and well-connected trial lawyers, who are considered the financial foundation of the Democratic Party in Texas, where there are no limits on individual contributions to state races.
The top tier of the Texas plaintiffs' bar has made hundreds of millions of dollars suing oil companies, breast-implant manufacturers and asbestos manufacturers. Five Texas lawyers shared a $3.3 billion fee for negotiating the state's settlement with the tobacco industry.
Hillary Clinton received the federal limit of $2,300 in donations from Celis.
"I would think Mrs. Clinton would want to spend a little bit of her vast war chest doing a little due diligence on where all this money is coming from," said Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice.
A spokesman for Clinton's campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Celis brought in $100,000 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at a fundraiser earlier this year, pitching in $28,500 of his own money. In the 2006 campaign cycle, Celis gave $119,500 to state candidates or political action committees, making himself No. 116 in a Texans for Public Justice ranking of individual donors in Texas.
Several recipients of his money, including state Reps. Juan Garcia and Solomon Ortiz, both from the Corpus Christi area, have donated gifts from Celis to charity, according to their staffs.
Houston-area Rep. Nick Lampson was given $4,600 by Celis this year; the congressman's Republican opponent, Pete Olson, has demanded Lampson give the money away.
"Democrats came in preaching that they were going to have big ethics reform, but keeping money like this, tainted money, sort of shows that people put politics over principles," Olson said. Lampson's campaign did not return calls.
Celis also gave $65,000 to Chris Bell's unsuccessful 2006 campaign for governor. "Mauricio Celis has always been a good Democrat and I'm sure this is all going to blow over," said Jason Stanford, Bell's former campaign manager.
Celis is not licensed to practice law in the United States. He has claimed he is a lawyer in Mexico, where he was born and attended college at La Universidad Regio Montana in Monterrey, studying judicial science. But he testified before a state court in May that he did not have a cedula, the Mexican equivalent of a bar license.
Few people who know Celis will talk about him publicly now, but Celis has long enjoyed the high life. According to records examined by the AP, he lives in a luxurious home in an exclusive country-club area, drives BMWs and Mercedes and hops around the globe in a private jet.
He is a quick-tempered businessman who frequents local strip clubs, according to police reports from the past few years. He keeps a reserve sheriff's deputy badge from nearby Duval County, which he has flashed before in other run-ins with the law, police say.
"He has a reputation for throwing his name around and throwing his money around in a less than savory manner," said Corpus Christi lawyer Tom Harvey, who aired TV commercials in the area announcing that Celis is not a licensed attorney.
"He wasn't well respected. Many people in this community sensed by his conduct, the way he handled himself, that he was not of an educated background," Harvey said. "His attempted credentials were highly suspect."
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sued Celis last month and is seeking to stop Celis' firm from operating.
In transcripts from a separate lawsuit, an attorney involved in a dispute over referral fees described CGT as "a sham law firm."
CGT is "operating illegally and is nothing more than a runner ambulance-chasing referral organization that has a history of referring cases that they have solicited improperly and sent off to other lawyers," attorney Ray Thomas told a judge in May.
Celis was "operating as if he was a plaintiff's attorney," Wheat said. "He looked and acted like a plaintiff's attorney."