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South Texas DA charged with extortion, fraud

A South Texas prosecutor running for U.S. Congress was charged Monday with taking more than $100,000 in bribes to settle and minimize criminal cases, including one deal that allegedly netted $80,000 while a convicted murderer fled a prison sentence.

Armando Villalobos, the district attorney in Cameron County, was charged with racketeering, extortion and honest services fraud, prosecutors said. His former law partner, private attorney Eduardo Lucio, faces similar charges.

The two men were the latest to be roped into in a multi-year federal investigation of corruption in the county's criminal justice system, which has ensnared a judge, a bailiff, lawyers and a former state legislator. Former state District Judge Abel Limas and other local attorneys have pleaded guilty to charges.

After being released on bond, Villalobos stood outside the courthouse Monday afternoon in front of two dozen supporters in matching red T-shirts and denied all of the charges.

"Have faith in the system and have faith in me," Villalobos said. "I have served this community for 14 years and I believe I've earned the people's trust and I've earned the legal community's trust, and I don't think that's going to be erased in one day."

In its most explosive allegation, the indictment claims Villalobos agreed to a deal that gave a man who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder 60 days of freedom before reporting to prison. Amit Livingston was convicted in 2007 of killing 32-year-old substitute teacher Hermila Hernandez, whose body was found on South Padre Island two years earlier.

Livingston was sentenced to 23 years in prison, but given time to get his "affairs in order" by presiding judge Limas, the Brownsville Herald reported. Instead, Livingston fled, and remains at large.

Meanwhile, Villalobos allegedly had Lucio file a wrongful death lawsuit against Livingston on behalf of Hernandez's family. The $500,000 bond Livingston posted was used to settle the lawsuit, the indictment said. Hernandez's family collected $300,000, while Lucio took $200,000 and paid Villalobos $80,000, the indictment said.

Lucio and Villalobos paid Limas about $10,000 to stay quiet and allow the arrangement, the indictment alleges.

Livingston's attorney, Greg Gladden, said Monday that Villalobos insisted that his client plead guilty and be sentenced at the same time, instead of waiting 60 days. Entering the sentence freed up Livingston's bond money for the wrongful death settlement, Gladden said.

Had authorities delayed sentencing, the $500,000 bond would not have been available when Livingston fled. If caught, Livingston would face a new charge and possibly a tougher sentence, Gladden said.

"By doing it this way, they got the money, and they didn't care if he came back," Gladden. "It settled the case."

The 34-page indictment also accuses Villalobos of taking multiple $5,000 bribes for "favorable prosecution decisions" for criminal defendants, including clients of two South Texas attorneys identified only as "Person G" and "Person E." At least one payment to Villalobos came in the form of a campaign contribution, the indictment said.

Villalobos and Lucio were released Monday on $50,000 bond. U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Morgan ordered both to surrender their passports and not travel to Mexico. They will also need the court's permission to dispose of any significant assets.

Villalobos said he would not resign his office or halt his campaign for a U.S. House seat in the heavily Democratic region's new 34th Congressional District. Villalobos was second in fundraising among eight primary candidates with more than $150,000 before rumors spread earlier this year about a possible indictment.

Asked how the indictment could affect his office, including the possibility of revisiting cases, he said, "I don't think it affects that at all."

Villalobos entered office in January 2005 and had previously worked as an assistant district attorney. According to his campaign website, Villalobos' office handles about 16,000 cases per year.

John Blaylock, attorney for Lucio, said the indictment is "going to fall apart when the real facts come out." Lucio is not related to a state senator and state representative with the same name.

Limas pleaded guilty to racketeering last year after being accused of a scheme to turn his office into a moneymaking venture. He was on the bench from 2001 to 2008 and is scheduled to be sentenced in August.

Several attorneys, including a former state lawmaker, also have been indicted in connection with Limas' scheme, paying bribes to win appointments or push the judge's discretion in favor of their clients.

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Associated Press writer Chris Tomlinson in Austin contributed to this report.

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