BROWNSVILLE, Texas – An attorney accused of paying kickbacks that helped a judge turn his South Texas courtroom into a moneymaking enterprise was convicted Monday in the first trial stemming from a four-year federal investigation into judicial corruption.
A federal jury found Port Isabel lawyer Ray Marchan guilty of all seven counts he faced after deliberating for about 10 hours during two days. He was the first of 12 people swept up in the investigation of former state District Judge Abel Limas to face trial in Brownsville. Limas pleaded guilty to racketeering last year and awaits sentencing.
Marchan was just one of many people who helped Limas enrich himself to the tune of more than $250,000 during his time on the bench, prosecutors said. Limas implicated a number of area lawyers during Marchan's two-week trial, spreading shame among legal professionals and casting doubt in the wider community about the possibilities of justice inside a system so clearly run amok.
U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson in Houston said in a prepared statement that the case was "an example of our strong stand against corruption and dedication to ensure the integrity of our entrusted public officials."
Prosecutors accused Marchan of paying Limas more than $11,000 in 2008 in exchange for appointments and favorable decisions. Marchan's defense argued he was just loaning money to a friend.
Defense attorney Adela Kowalski-Garza expressed sadness after the verdict and said she respected the jury's decision, but did not agree with it. Marchan praised his attorneys, but otherwise declined to comment.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen allowed Marchan, 55, to remain free on bond pending his Sept. 24 sentencing. He could face up to 20 years in prison for each count.
The judge suggested Marchan spend the next several months wrapping up what remains of his law practice. Hanen said he already had prepared letters to the State Bar and the region's chief federal judge recommending Marchan lose his law license.
Prosecutors had suggested Marchan was a flight risk and danger to the community. The Brownsville courthouse is less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border, and an FBI agent testified about a history of domestic abuse calls to Marchan's home involving two wives during the past decade. One of the abuse cases was resolved with pretrial diversion and the others were dropped.
FBI agent Ryan Flint testified that Marchan's most recent wife, a 21-year-old from Russia, could not be located and was believed to have returned to her native country. Flint also said Marchan's Internet history before the trial indicated he was looking for another Russian bride.
Defense attorney Noe Garza counted that those incidents preceded Marchan's arrest last year and that he has since complied with all requirements of his bond and attended all hearings.
It was clear from the start that Marchan's trial would be as much about Limas — and his credibility as a witness — as it was about the attorney. Limas spent parts of four days matter-of-factly answering prosecutors' questions about corruption.
Limas testified that the money Marchan gave him was to head off an opposing lawyer's attempt to sanction Marchan for missing a court date and to land appointments as a guardian ad litem. Guardians ad litem represent the interests of people, often children, in cases and Limas described the work during Marchan's trial as "quick, easy money."
Federal investigators launched their investigation in Brownsville in late 2007 after receiving a tip. The FBI had wiretaps on Limas' home phone and cellphones throughout 2008. The case soon expanded and half of the dozen people indicted were lawyers, including the sitting Cameron County district attorney and a former state legislator.
Prosecutors at Marchan's trial played a small fraction of the 40,000 intercepted phone calls between Limas and those who conspired with him. Even those that didn't document illegal activity left an unsavory impression of justice behind closed doors and the callous treatment of the legal system for personal gain.
Limas conceded he was more than $400,000 in debt in 2008 and his attorney friends know that he could use some money. He said he accepted loans from some, but said Marchan's payments were kickbacks and bribes for his judicial discretion.
Marchan was a respected civil litigator in Brownsville. He had attended Rice University and graduated from Stanford's law school. In 2008, he was going through a divorce, and Limas said he had heard Marchan was headed for his third bankruptcy.