Ex-judge sentenced to prison for using court as money-making operation in Texas

A former South Texas judge who turned his courtroom into a money-making operation was sentenced Wednesday to six years in prison followed by three years of unsupervised release.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen sentenced former state district Judge Abel Limas on one count of racketeering in Brownsville, on the border with Mexico.

Limas drew the FBI's attention in late 2007 as he neared the end of his second term in office. Investigators intercepted some 40,000 phone calls and collected surveillance photos documenting how Limas had converted his courtroom into a criminal enterprise, collecting bribes and kickbacks totaling $257,000.

Limas pleaded guilty in 2011 and became the government's star witness in four related trials that shook Cameron County's justice system. He could have faced up to 20 years in prison but received credit for cooperation.

Limas grew up in the projects in Brownsville, the son of a local police officer. Profanities streamed forth in English and Spanish in intercepted phone calls as Limas discussed women, lawyers and court matters with his pals. On the stand, in dark suits with his grey hair combed back, Limas would shift uncomfortably when conversations he thought private were played, repeated and dissected.

His family moved to a nicer neighborhood while he was in his teens. He graduated high school, then college, majoring in criminal justice. He followed his father -- who became a top detective in his 40-year career -- into the police force, and after four years he took his father's advice to aim for something higher.

"Since I was a kid I wanted to be a judge," Limas testified at one trial, saying he imagined God only allowed the greatest to take on that responsibility. He went to law school in Houston, returned to Brownsville and began practicing criminal defense.

In 2000, he ran for and won the election for the 404th District Court. He served two terms before losing in the 2008 Democratic primary.

By then the married father of four was in trouble. He was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. He gambled -- he estimated 30 trips to Las Vegas -- he had kids in college and his $8,000-per-month judge's salary wasn't covering it. He had let it be known among his attorney friends that he needed money.

Racketeering is a charge typically associated with organized crime -- the mob, drug cartels. But in Limas' case, prosecutors said his courtroom was the criminal enterprise where he generated money for himself.

Limas took kickbacks from friends, accepting thousands of dollars for favorable rulings he made from the bench. In one case, he accepted $5,000 in cash handed to him in a McDonald's bag by then Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, just to keep his mouth shut.

At some point, Limas testified, "I just felt like somebody was following me."

He was right. A tip in late 2007 had put the FBI on Limas' tail and they recorded his mobile and home phone conversations for most of 2008.

On March 10, 2010, Limas was summoned to a meeting with the FBI. He returned March 11 and March 12. A year later, Limas would plead guilty to one count of racketeering and agree to cooperate with authorities. In all, Limas talked to the FBI more than three-dozen times and became federal prosecutors' star witness at all four trials that followed. He helped take down the sitting district attorney and a former state lawmaker, and cast doubt on a large chunk of the Cameron County bar.

Even beyond the dozen people charged in the investigation, Limas implicated many more attorneys in his testimony for practices that were at a minimum unethical.