BROWNSVILLE, Texas — A former Texas prosecutor and one-time candidate for Congress was convicted Friday of accepting bribes in exchange for court favors, including an $80,000 payment in a scheme that allowed a convicted murder to escape.
Jurors convicted former Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos on racketeering, bribery and extortion charges. They acquitted him on two extortion charges.
Villalobos is the highest-profile target to stand trial in an FBI investigation into legal corruption in Cameron County. The former prosecutor was accused of taking more than $100,000 in bribes from attorneys.
Villalobos denied any wrongdoing and testified during his trial that he did not request money from lawyers in exchange for appointments with him.
Among the allegations were that Villalobos participated in a scheme involving Amit Livingston, who was convicted of killing his girlfriend, Hermila Hernandez, in 2007. Prosecutors alleged former state District Judge Abel Lima agreed to work with Villalobos and Villalobos' former law partner, Eddie Lucio, in criminal and civil cases involving Livingston. The trio's target was the $500,000 bond put up for Livingston's release before trial.
Federal prosecutors alleged Villalobos set up Lucio to represent Hernandez's three children in their lawsuit against Livingston, and the criminal and civil cases both landed in Limas' courtroom. In the criminal case, Limas agreed to convict and sentence Livingston on the same day, thereby freeing up his bond to be used as the settlement in the civil suit.
However, Limas also agreed that day to Livingston's request that he would have 60 days to get his affairs in order before reporting to prison. That meant Livingston was released without bond — highly unusual for a convicted killer already sentenced to decades in prison. Livingston didn't report to prison as scheduled and hasn't been seen since.
Lucio received $200,000 in attorney's fees for handling the civil case. Prosecutors said he kicked $80,000 back to Villalobos and together they gave about $10,000 to Limas to keep quiet. Lucio also faces charges in the case. Lima, who was one of the main witnesses at Villalobos' trial, pleaded guilty to racketeering and awaits sentencing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wynne told jurors in his opening statement that the cash payments Villalobos accepted from attorneys in exchange for his prosecutorial discretion amounted to "having a district attorney on retainer."
"You pay him in advance so when you need him, he's there," Wynne told jurors at the federal courthouse in Brownsville.
Prosecutors allege the activity took place from October 2006 through May 3, 2012. Villalobos, a two-term district attorney, served from 2005 through the end of 2012. He ran for Congress last year, losing in the Democratic primary.
Villalobos remains free on bond. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison for each of the seven counts on which he was convicted. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 26.