Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Indictments against Cheney, Gonzales dismissed

Indictments against Cheney, Gonzales dismissed


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A judge dismissed eight indictments Monday brought by a South Texas prosecutor against high-profile figures including Vice President Dick Cheney, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and a state senator.

The order by Administrative Judge Manuel Banales ended two weeks of proceedings that some courtroom veterans declared the most bizarre they had ever witnessed.

It also began to dim the lights on the rocky tenure of outgoing Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra, who even in thorough defeat saw the outcome as confirmation of the very conspiracy he had pursued.

"I expected it," Guerra said immediately after the hearing. "The system is going to protect itself."

On Nov. 17 a Willacy County grand jury returned eight indictments. Three of those targeting private prison operator The GEO Group, state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. and lastly Cheney and Gonzales, focused on the nexus of privately run prisons and politicians.

One alleged that Cheney's personal investment in the Vanguard Group, which invests in private prison companies, presented a conflict of interest, allowing him to profit from the growing detention centers where inmates have been alleged victims of abuse. Gonzales was accused of using his position to stop an investigation into abuses at a federal detention center in Willacy County. Lucio's indictment alleged that the Brownsville Democrat used his position to profit as a private consultant to the prison companies.

Banales dismissed the indictment against Lucio Monday because it failed to address whether Lucio knew he was only being hired by private prison companies as a consultant because he was a state senator.

Later, Banales dismissed that indictment and the other seven because Tony Canales, attorney for The GEO Group, showed that on the day the indictments were handed up, two alternates were part of the 10-member grand jury. Those alternates not been properly substituted.

"I find each and every one of these indictments were improperly returned," Banales said.

Five of the indictments had targeted two district judges, two special prosecutors and the district clerk who all had a hand in an earlier investigation of Guerra. The indictments accused each of abusing their power in order to hurt Guerra and keep him from digging into the private prisons.

Guerra was under indictment for 18 months on charges of extorting money from a bail bond company and using his office for personal business until Banales dismissed the charges in October. During that time Guerra protested in front of the sheriff's office with farm animals and in March lost his re-election bid in a primary.

Banales found Monday that it was inappropriate and unlawful for Guerra to present those cases to the grand jury where he was the alleged victim, witness and prosecutor.

In all of the cases except the indictment of Cheney and Gonzales, Banales said he found no probable cause to support the indictments. He withheld that judgment on the Cheney and Gonzales indictment because they were not represented in court and did not present any argument.

A White House spokeswoman told The Associated Press on Monday night that Cheney's office had no comment. A call made to Gonzales' attorney was not immediately returned late Monday night.

Guerra ran the 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."

Two days after the indictments were returned, Banales came to Raymondville to discuss the cases for the first time, but Guerra had traveled to Mexico on a previously scheduled trip. The judge, unable to determine his whereabouts, sent Texas Rangers to his home to check on his well being and order him to appear in court.

With his term expiring at the end of the month, Guerra was told to exercise caution in his remaining days.

"I suggest on behalf of the law that you not present any cases to the grand jury involving these defendants," Banales said, before scheduling a hearing for Dec. 10 to hear a motion to disqualify Guerra from those cases.

Earlier in the day, District Judge Michael Peden rejected Guerra's attempt to disqualify Banales from hearing the cases. Guerra had argued Banales was part of the same conspiracy to silence him and could not be impartial.

David Oliveira, another attorney representing The GEO Group, called it one of the most "bizarre" proceedings he had ever seen.

But back in his office, Guerra refused to quit. He ranted against Banales for creating technicalities where none existed and promised to persist.

"I am going to continue fighting for the corruption," Guerra said. "I am still the district attorney."

One floor below in the courthouse a legal notice warned of a problem looming for Guerra closer to home.

A two-page notice tacked to a bulletin board advertised the Jan. 6 foreclosure sale of Guerra's home.

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