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After three days of testimony, prosecutors called a final witness against former state District Judge Rudy Delgado on Tuesday.
FBI Special Agent David Roncska summarized the case against Delgado, who is accused of accepting bribes from a local attorney. Roncska also said rumors about the Delgado case — one based in fact, one wildly inaccurate — forced the FBI to abandon spin-off investigations.
Prosecutors concluded their case against Delgado on Tuesday afternoon. Attorney Michael McCrum of San Antonio, who represents Delgado, said he plans to call witnesses on Wednesday.
Depending on the number of defense witnesses, attorneys may deliver closing arguments on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning.
The FBI and federal prosecutors believe former 93rd state District Judge Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado, 66, of Edinburg accepted bribes from Noe Perez, a local attorney, from 2008 to 2018.
When he took the witness stand, Perez called himself a “hood rat” who hustled drug traffickers.
“I grew up with people who ended up in jail or dead,” Perez said.
Perez started as a janitor. He spent 15 years cleaning before he switched careers and became a probation officer. After that, he studied law at Texas Southern University.
Perez, though, had a problem. He failed the bar exam.
“It took him another four times,” said attorney Carlos Guerra of McAllen, who employed Perez while he studied for the test, when he testified Monday.
After he finally passed the bar exam, Perez needed a judge to administer the oath of office. Delgado did the honors.
Perez said they didn’t talk much. That changed in 2008, when Perez accepted a Chevrolet Silverado from a client who couldn’t pay.
He told Carlos Guerra about the truck. Carlos Guerra told Delgado.
They met at Chap’s Bar & Grill in Edinburg, where Delgado asked Perez about the truck. Perez said Delgado later took the truck without paying him.
“I thought that, in a sense, I had a credit,” Perez said.
Roncska said public records showed the truck had been transferred from Noe Perez’s client to Ricco Delgado, the judge’s son.
After he took the truck, Delgado frequently sided with him in court, Perez said. They also became acquaintances, occasionally socializing outside work.
Perez started buying firewood from Delgado and slipping him cash in six-packs of beer.
Prosecutors said Perez would pay about $250 for 15 to 20 logs of mesquite wood. McCrum, the attorney who represents Delgado, asked questions that indicated Perez received truckloads of firewood.
Neither prosecutors nor Delgado’s attorneys introduced evidence to quantify the amount of firewood Perez actually received.
Perez, who spent two days on the witness stand, appeared reluctant to admit he actually bribed Delgado. In response to questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter M. Nothstein, he admitted buying firewood to curry favor with the judge.
He also admitted to buying the judge beer.
“He would tell me ‘Today, I feel Mexican,’” Perez said, adding that “Mexican” meant Corona and “American” meant Budweiser.
Perez would occasionally place cash in the six-packs.
The FBI started investigating him in 2016, when a woman claimed that Perez said he could pay judges for courtroom favors.
FBI agents confronted Perez with a recording of the conversation. He agreed to become a federal informant.
Perez recorded a conversation with Delgado in December 2016, when he paid $260 for firewood after discussing a case with the judge. Perez recorded another conversation in November 2017, when he bought the judge beer and slipped him $260 after discussing a case. And Perez recorded another conversation in January 2018, when he handed the judge $5,500 after discussing another case.
The FBI recorded the conversations and captured the payments on video.
Perhaps the most damning conversation between Perez and Delgado happened in August 2017, when the judge didn’t accept anything.
Perez approached Delgado with a scenario crafted by the FBI.
A client in Mexico wanted to self-surrender, Perez said, but he wanted the judge to release him on bond.
Perez said the man had been caught with 300 kilograms or 300 pounds of cocaine. He couldn’t remember the amount.
Delgado found the scenario very suspicious. Federal prosecutors typically handle cases with large amounts of cocaine.
“Who the f— are they trying to set up,” Delgado said, wondering aloud whether or not federal agents wanted to catch someone committing a crime.
Delgado told Perez to stay away from the case.
“Let’s let this booby trap swim up the river,” Delgado said.
Delgado apparently didn’t suspect Perez until January 2018, when the judge heard a rumor about a federal investigation.
Prosecutors called state Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, and state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who testified about how the rumor spread.
Bobby Guerra said that Ernest Aliseda, an attorney who served on the University of Texas System Board of Regents, passed along a rumor about Delgado. Aliseda told Bobby Guerra that Delgado was under investigation and the case involved the sale of firewood.
Bobby Guerra told Chuy Hinojosa about the rumor. Chuy Hinojosa told Delgado.
The FBI had been concerned about leaks since Jan. 5, when a post appeared on AnonymousRGV.com that claimed a grand jury had indicted a judge on bribery charges.
While inaccurate, the information posted on AnonymousRGV.com concerned the FBI.
“It lead me to believe we had a leak in our investigation,” said Roncska, the case agent.
Delgado confronted Bobby Guerra about the rumor on Jan 29, 2018. After the conversation, Delgado sent a text message to Perez about the $5,500 payment.
“Good evening, please call me. The campaign contribution needs to be by check,” Delgado told Perez in the text message, according to the indictment against him. “I need to return that to you so you can write a check. Sorry about the confusion, I thought you knew and I did not open the envelope till today.”
Convinced that Delgado knew about the investigation, FBI agents arrested him four days later.
McCrum, the attorney who represents Delgado, pushed back against the story told by prosecutors.
During cross-examination, McCrum suggested that Delgado considered the discussions about court cases separate from the discussions about money. At times, Perez appeared to agree.
McCrum grilled Perez about the November 2017 meeting, when prosecutors claim Delgado accepted $260 without any clear purpose.
FBI agents searched Perez before the meeting and provided him with $260 to pay Delgado. Roncska testified that FBI agents conducted the search because they wanted to verify that Perez wasn’t carrying any additional cash.
After they met, Perez and Delgado went to a nearby Stripes convenience store. Perez purchased beer and gas. Asked how he paid without any cash, Perez said he couldn’t explain it.
McCrum also questioned Roncska about the $5,500 payment in January 2018, suggesting the money could be part campaign contribution and part donation to Delgado’s foundation.
Roncska said that Perez handed Delgado a half-inch thick envelope. When he took the envelope, Delgado had to know he wasn’t accepting a check.
“Maybe there’s a check out there that’s half an inch thick,” Roncska said. “I’ve never seen it.”
Along with picking apart the sting operation, McCrum suggested in several questions that Delgado had been drunk when he met with Perez.
McCrum may present witnesses Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett of Houston, who is presiding over the case, originally estimated the trial would last until mid-July.
Bennett, however, blocked two prosecution witnesses with credibility problems from testifying, which accelerated the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Arthur “Rob” Jones said Tuesday morning that prosecutors wanted a drug trafficker named Fernando Guerra Sr. to testify about two payoffs in 2004.
Fernando Guerra Sr. worked with corrupt cops — including members of the Panama Unit and deputies assigned to the Hidalgo County Crime Stoppers program — to steal drugs from other smugglers. He’s serving a 147-month sentence in federal prison.
Jones said that Fernando Guerra Sr. would testify about paying a judge on behalf of an attorney involved in civil litigation.
Bennett, concerned about the lack of details, blocked Fernando Guerra Sr. from testifying. An attorney for Fernando Guerra Sr. couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
Jones also wanted a woman named Mireya G. Hinojosa to testify about a payment from attorney Al Alvarez to Delgado.
Mireya Hinojosa pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration accused her of impersonating a federal agent as part of a plan to steal marijuana.
Jones said that Mireya Hinojosa attended Alvarez’s birthday party in 2015. A few days later, she witnessed Alvarez pay $1,000 to Delgado for “favorable consideration” on a case.
Bennett blocked her from testifying, concerned about the lack of detail offered by prosecutors and how, exactly, she knew the $1,000 payment constituted a bribe.
An attorney for Mireya Hinojosa didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Attorney Heriberto “Eddie” Medrano of Harlingen, who represents Alvarez, called the story nonsense.
“The government went ahead and excused Al from even being a witness,” Medrano said, adding that Alvarez never bribed anyone.