BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — While a personal injury attorney's cases were pending in his courtroom, a former South Texas judge says he negotiated a job with that same lawyer for when he left the bench, according to testimony Thursday.
Former state District Judge Abel Limas testified in federal court in Brownsville that Austin attorney Marc Rosenthal offered him $100,000 plus a percentage of attorney's fees for cases that he brought him after leaving office. While Limas was still in office, Rosenthal helped fund his campaign and promised him a cut of attorney's fees in a case, Limas said.
Limas, the original target of a yearslong federal investigation, was one of several prosecution witnesses who testified in Thursday's preliminary hearing. He already pleaded guilty to racketeering and awaits sentencing.
"It was going to be a new beginning for me," Limas said of his excitement about the new job prospect he hoped could offer some relief from his mounting debts. He recounted several meetings with Rosenthal and former state Rep. Jose Santiago "Jim" Solis, who has also pleaded guilty in the case, where the conversation mingled the judge's future and the cases currently before him.
One of those cases was a civil lawsuit about a February 2008 helicopter crash off South Padre Island. Rosenthal was representing the victims' families. Limas had lost his re-lection bid in a March 2008 Democratic primary and, within days of leaving the bench, he went to work for Rosenthal in January 2009.
Rosenthal is scheduled to go on trial in February on federal racketeering charges.
Limas estimated he would have made about $500,000 from the 10 percent he said Rosenthal had promised him of the attorney's fees in the helicopter crash case. The case did not finish before Limas left the bench, but prosecutors say he had made favorable rulings and steered the case to another of Rosenthal's preferred judges.
"The objective was to make sure things came out OK," Limas said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wynne asked if he meant the goal was to make money.
"Yes," Limas said.
Federal investigators launched their investigation of Limas 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 then-Cameron County district attorney and Solis. Authorities said Limas turned his courtroom into a money-making operation.
Solis, a seven-term legislator, also testified Thursday about the conspiracy.
Solis began referring cases to Rosenthal and doing some legwork with clients in South Texas. He said he helped steer Rosenthal's cases into Limas' court.
"Putting it in Limas' court would give it a favorable outcome," Solis said.
He reached out to Limas about coming to work for Rosenthal the month after Limas lost the primary election, Solis said. When Limas mentioned possibly leaving the bench early to get a start in private practice, Solis said Rosenthal thought it was important to keep him in the courtroom as long as possible.
Shortly after the FBI first approached Solis about the investigation in March 2010, Rosenthal sent him a cellphone and told him he was supposed to only call him from that phone, Solis said. At that point, Rosenthal suspected his phones were being tapped, Solis said.
Solis pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting Limas' extortion scheme in April 2011.
He was introduced to Rosenthal through a South Texas acquaintance, Gilbert Benavides, who spent four years working for Rosenthal's firm, signing on clients in South Texas and handling their needs.
Benavides testified that on several occasions he paid people, on behalf of Rosenthal, to alter their statements and even to pretend to have witnessed events they had not.
Rosenthal's attorney, Ernesto Gamez, challenged Benavides' account. He said Benavides and Solis worked together doing things on their own initiative, not under instruction from Rosenthal.
Asked by prosecutors why he eventually left the firm, Benavides said, "I became extremely uncomfortable with things I was asked to do."