BROWNSVILLE, Texas – A former judge who turned his South Texas courtroom into a money-making operation was sentenced Wednesday to six years in prison followed by three years of supervised release.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen sentenced former state district Judge Abel Limas, 59, on one count of racketeering in Brownsville, on the border with Mexico. He also ordered Limas to pay almost $6.8 million in restitution.
In a tearful statement Limas made to the court before he was sentenced, he said that he willingly had done everything the government asked of him because as a former police officer, lawyer and judge, he knew the "writing was on the wall."
"I believe, judge, that I righted this wrong," Limas said, while apologizing for the damage he had done to the justice system. "It wasn't a mistake. I knew what I was engaging in."
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen's sentence exceeded the 4 1/2 years requested by prosecutors.
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.
Former Cameron County District Attorney Yolanda De Leon, who was prosecuted in Limas' court by her successor in the DA's office, made an emotional statement before Limas' sentence was handed down. The charges against De Leon were later dropped.
"Every single judge that sits in the state court now is suspect," De Leon said. "That is the legacy he has left."
After graduating high school, then college, where he majored in criminal justice, Limas followed his father -- who became a top detective in his 40-year career -- into the police force. Then he took his father's advice and aimed for something higher.
"Since I was a kid I wanted to be a judge," Limas testified at one trial.
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. But in Limas' case, prosecutors said his courtroom was the criminal enterprise where he generated cash.
Limas took kickbacks from friends, accepting thousands of dollars for favorable rulings. 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 phone conversations for most of 2008.
In March 2010, Limas was summoned to by the FBI. A year later, he pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and agreed to cooperate with authorities.
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.
On Wednesday, Limas' attorney Chip Lewis told the court that since his arrest, Limas had moved in with his son's family in Katy, Texas, and was working dawn-to-dusk as a construction supervisor.
Limas, who relinquished his law license, told Hanen: "Never will I sit again. Never will I practice again."