Monday, November 24, 2008

Cheney, Gonzales indictment turns chaotic

Texas hearing on Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales indictment turns chaotic

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A county prosecutor who brought indictments against Vice President Dick Cheney, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others pounded his fist and shouted at the judge Friday about special treatment for high-profile defendants as a routine motions hearing descended into chaos.

Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra, who is accusing the public officials of culpability in the alleged abuse of prisoners in a federal detention center, asked Presiding Judge Manuel Banales to recuse himself. Guerra has complained about Banales' handling of the case.

Attorneys for the vice president and other defendants leapt to their feet in objection, as Guerra pounded the table and accused Banales of giving the defendants special treatment in allowing motions to quash the indictments to be heard before the defendants were arraigned.

"Now all of a sudden there is urgency," Guerra shouted. "Eighteen months you kept me indicted through the election." The charges against Guerra were dismissed in October. Guerra lost re-election in the March Democratic primary.

Banales called a recess to contact the chief justice of the state Supreme Court for suggestions on how to proceed, and ordered Guerra, who had slipped out once before in the hearing, to remain in the courthouse.

"I will not obey that order," Guerra said. When Banales implied he would take steps to keep Guerra in court, Guerra agreed to stay if the judge asked him respectfully.

Unlike the initial hearing Wednesday when Guerra was absent and media and attorneys for the indicted appeared in equal numbers, curious residents packed the well-worn pews of the Willacy County Courthouse's only courtroom Friday.

Half of the indictments returned Monday are linked to privately run federal detention centers in the sparsely populated southern Texas county. The other half target judges and special prosecutors who played a role in an earlier investigation of Guerra.

Banales appointed a special prosecutor to handle the local officials indicted along with Cheney, Gonzales and state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, because Guerra has sparred with them for years.

The vice president is the highest public official Guerra has pursued, but he made a nearly 20-year-career of passing over routine crimes in favor of public corruption before being defeated in the March Democratic primary election.

It was Guerra's interest in the contracts to build and run a federal detention center that led to some of his biggest successes _ three guilty pleas on bribery charges from former county commissioners in 2005. But he also believes it was the motivation for his own legal battles.

Guerra responded to his theft arrest by camping outside the courthouse with farm animals in protest. He continued working for more than a year while under indictment on charges of extorting money from a bail bond company and using his office for personal business until Banales dismissed the indictment last month.

Guerra ran the current investigation into alleged prisoner abuse with a siege mentality. He worked it from his home, dubbed it "Operation Goliath" and kept it secret from his staff, he said. He gave all the witnesses biblical pseudonyms - his was "David" - and sometimes gave false reasons for witnesses' appearances so as not to raise suspicion in a courthouse he believed to be filled with political enemies. A clerk and a judge who share the building were among those indicted Monday.

The grand jury also charged Lucio with illegally profiting from prison consulting fees.

The GEO Group Corp. was indicted on a murder charge for the death of an inmate at a federal prison.

"The indictment is the product of prosecutorial vindictiveness and is void on its face," defense attorney Tony Canales, who represents the private prison operator, wrote in a motion. Canales is also the legal representative for Cheney and Gonzales.

Another indictment alleges that Cheney's personal investment in the Vanguard Group, which invests in private prison companies, gives him culpability in alleged prisoner abuse.

Other indictments charge two district judges, two special prosecutors and the Willacy County district clerk with abusing their powers in investigating Guerra's office.

The defendants did need to appear in person Friday.

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