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Louis Luyten had a major decision to make.
Federal agents caught Luyten, an 81-year-old pilot from Belgium, attempting to fly immigrants from Weslaco to Houston in November 2018. Faced with 10 years in federal prison — a potential life sentence for an octogenarian, especially one with a prior conviction for smuggling — Luyten needed a good lawyer.
Al Alvarez had represented defendants in dozens of high-profile cases, ranging from the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district bribery scheme to the Panama Unit corruption scandal.
On Jan. 7, though, U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez, who isn’t related to Al Alvarez, warned Luyten about his hotshot lawyer.
“He is, in fact, being investigated by the same prosecuting office that is prosecuting you,” Judge Alvarez said, according to an audio recording of the hearing. “That is, by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
Federal judges started warning defendants about Al Alvarez after FBI agents arrested former state District Judge Rudy Delgado, who is accused of accepting bribes from an attorney. Al Alvarez briefly represented Delgado, who pleaded not guilty.
“First of all, there is no conflict with my representation of Mr. Luyten in this case with the case involving Judge Rudy Delgado,” Al Alvarez said at the Jan. 7 hearing. “Absolutely none. Unrelated in time and in space.”
In an interview, Al Alvarez said any suggestion that he’s under federal investigation is incorrect.
“I am not the target of an investigation,” Al Alvarez said. “I don’t have anything to do with any of that bribery that they’re talking about.”
What prompted the judges to start warning defendants about Al Alvarez remains unclear.
Prosecutors filed key documents under seal. Judges addressed the situation during bench conferences. And letters that Al Alvarez’s clients wrote to judges about the situation were sealed or stricken from the court record.
The Progress Times reviewed all federal cases Al Alvarez handled from January 2016 to April 2019 and requested hours of audio recordings. Taken together, the documents leave little doubt that federal judges started treating Al Alvarez differently last year.
Prosecutors sent a letter to Al Alvarez on Feb. 15, 2018, apparently informing him about the inquiry. Prosecutors sent another letter on March 20, 2018, which apparently addressed the same situation.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa discussed both letters during a hearing on April 5, 2018.
Al Alvarez said the second letter “mooted out” the first letter. Hinojosa disagreed.
“It’s clear to me that the situation that was mentioned in the first letter as a potential issue is still in the second letter,” Hinojosa said. “And so as far as that, that continues to be an issue that I have to raise with any client that you may have in my court and make sure that they’re aware of it.”
Neither Al Alvarez nor attorney Heriberto “Eddie” Medrano of Harlingen, who represents him, would provide the Progress Times with the letters.
Medrano said that Al Alvarez received a subpoena in the Delgado case but isn’t under investigation.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston, which is handling the case against Delgado, didn’t respond to questions about Al Alvarez.
Hinojosa mentioned the letters in April 2018, when Al Alvarez represented a client named Jose de Jesus Martinez.
“Mr. Martinez. We had a hearing in your case with regards to whether you wanted to continue with Mr. Al Alvarez as your lawyer, knowing full well the disclosures that have been made to you with regards to letters that have been sent to him,” Hinojosa said on April 13, 2018, according to an audio recording of the hearing. “Two letters. Have you had an opportunity to review those?”
Al Alvarez voluntarily withdrew from the case before Martinez made a decision.
At least two other clients dropped Al Alvarez after judges warned them about the potential conflict of interest, according to court records.
In one instance, confusion emerged about whether or not a man named Raul Villegas Villanueva wanted Al Alvarez to represent him.
Al Alvarez said his client wanted to proceed. Hinojosa, who had received a letter from Villegas Villanueva, said he wasn’t convinced. He read the letter aloud.
“I want to remove attorney Al Alvarez from my case,” Hinojosa said, reading from the letter, according to an audio recording of the hearing. “And also for attorney Al Alvarez to pay me back in full amount the money that my family has given him. I do believe it’s not my fault for what happened and I was not aware of his situation.”
Hinojosa called the Office of the Federal Public Defender, which provided Villegas Villanueva with legal advice. After meeting with a public defender, Villegas Villanueva requested a different attorney.
Perhaps the most detailed public discussion of the situation occurred Jan. 7, when Luyten, the 81-year-old pilot, appeared before Judge Alvarez.
“As I understand it from the government, the issue we’ve dealt with on-and-off for some time now regarding Mr. Alvarez is still an issue, correct?” Judge Alvarez said, according to an audio recording of the hearing.
Informed the situation remained an “open issue,” Judge Alvarez walked Luyten through the potential conflict of interest.
“Mr. Alvarez, as I understand it — and, again, every time I go through this somebody corrects me on something — but as I understand it, Mr. Alvarez, your attorney here, is himself — I don’t know if ‘the subject’ is the proper term — but basically in some regard is part of an investigation that the government is pursuing related to criminal activity,” Judge Alvarez said. “Now, I’m not saying that your lawyer has committed a crime. And I have no idea, again, about the details of the investigation, but obviously if a lawyer is the subject of an investigation where the government is pursuing some investigation about criminal activity, and a lawyer is one of the people being investigated, that could put that lawyer in a conflict-of-interest situation with his client. So, first of all, Mr. Luyten, do you understand what I’ve just told you: that is, that your attorney is at least part of an investigation being conducted by the government regarding criminal activity?”
Luyten said he understood, but he couldn’t explain why the situation posed a potential conflict of interest.
Judge Alvarez provided an example.
“In a situation where the attorney is the subject of the investigation, conceivably, possibly, at some point in time, if the attorney was going to be charged or if there was information that he had engaged in criminal activity, the attorney, to help himself, might say ‘Hey, I have information about other criminal activity. I’m willing to cooperate with you, government, to help myself in this situation,’” Judge Alvarez said. “So that’s why in any one of these cases where Mr. Alvarez is representing a defendant, I’m letting the defendant know that he is, as I said, the subject of or involved in an investigation.”
Sentencing is scheduled for Thursday. Al Alvarez remains his attorney.