The GOP's Criminal Defenders


With GOP bosses around the country racking up rap sheets, the political party synonymous with anti-crime rhetoric and constitutional gun rights has become distracted by—of all things—the constitutional right to a criminal defense.

In the latest sign of this obsession, Republican leaders organized a benefit at a Virginia golf course last month to pay the legal bills of Tom DeLay cronies John Colyandro and Jim Ellis. A grand jury in Austin has charged the duo with helping DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC) make illegal corporate contributions to Texas state candidates in 2002. The defendants counter that their Democratic prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, trumped up the charges for partisan purposes.

San Antonio’s Roy Barrera, Jr., who set up the so-called Texas Justice Legal Defense Fund for Colyandro and Ellis, is a good choice to help transition the Grand Old Party from anti-crime crusader to a champion of the rights of criminal defendants. Barrera formerly headed the Bexar County Republican Party and was at one time Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen’s campaign treasurer. His son Roy Barrera III clerked for Owen before joining Loeffler Tuggey Pauerstein Rosenthal—the law firm representing TRMPAC defendant Jim Ellis. More to the point, Roy Barrera, Jr. practices at Nicholas & Barrera, one of San Antonio’s top criminal defense firms.

Defense attorney Roy Barrera, Jr. needed a defense attorney himself three years ago when a lawsuit accused the then-chair of the Bexar County Republican Party of disenfranchising voters by closing down dozens of San Antonio polling places on the day of the 2002 primary. To defend himself from these charges Barrera hired attorney J.D. Pauerstein—who now is defending TRMPAC’s Jim Ellis. GOP attorney Andy Taylor—who is defending the Texas Association of Business from allegations that it also made illegal political expenditures of corporate funds—filed the 2002 lawsuit against Barrera on behalf of six San Antonio voters. Finding that a poor turnout of election judges forced the poll closures, a federal court dismissed Taylor’s complaint in late 2002.


Some loyal Republicans might be troubled to learn—as the Latino magazine El Andar reported in 2000—that the man who now runs the Colyandro-Ellis legal fund has defended narcotraficantes big and small. Barrera’s clients range from ex-San Antonio cop Lawrence Bustos, convicted of contracting with undercover FBI agents to guard cocaine shipments, to convicted drug smuggler and money launderer Juan Chapa Garza.

Who do narco-defense lawyers in Mexico call when they themselves have U.S. legal problems? Roy Barrera got the call in 1994 when U.S. authorities arrested narco-defense kingpin Enrique Fuentes Leon, Sr. after he tried to bribe a U.S. immigration official. Mexico sought Fuentes at the time on charges that he spent $700,000 bribing Mexican judges to secure the release of wealthy killer Alejandro Braun Diaz. Braun’s 1988 sudden release after being convicted of torturing, raping, and murdering a 6-year-old girl outraged Mexico (Fuentes was convicted of these bribery charges in 1999).

The Barrera and Fuentes families resurfaced in the sensational murder case of Sheila Bellush, a mother of quadruplets who was murdered in front of her toddlers in 1997. After Bellush’s indigent assassin, Jose Luis Del Toro, fled to Mexico, people wondered where he got the dinero to retain Fuentes’ law firm. Speculation focused on Bellush’s estranged ex-husband, San Antonio millionaire Allen Blackthorne. Blackthorne’s decision to hire Roy Barrera to dispel these rumors seemingly backfired when the media reported that Barrera was a personal friend of Enrique Fuentes, Jr.—the very attorney representing Bellush’s murderer in Mexico. (Blackthorne and Del Toro were convicted in 2000.)


The Republican Party itself has begun to look like a cash cow for criminal defense attorneys. So much so that solicitations for legal funds like the one that Barrera set up for Colyandro and Ellis could soon overwhelm GOP supporters. Throughout the Texas Legislature’s long, quiescent summer, a cicada buzz has built behind rumors that other GOP luminaries soon will be indicted in the TRMPAC affair. Those most often named are Texas Association of Business boss Bill Hammond, ex-gubernatorial Chief of Staff Mike Toomey, House Speaker Tom Craddick, and other House members.

The GOP criminal-defense machine already was humming by the time supporters teed off for the recent Colyandro-Ellis fundraiser. The Associated Press reported in August that the Republican National Committee (RNC) quietly has paid $722,000 in legal bills for James Tobin, who was New England chair of the 2004 Bush campaign. Federal prosecutors recently charged Tobin with conspiring to jam Democratic get-out-the-vote phone lines in New Hampshire in 2002 when Tobin was a regional director of the Republican Senatorial Committee. The RNC is footing Tobin’s legal bills despite the insistence of RNC Chair Ken Mehlman that the GOP has zero tolerance for such voter-suppression schemes.

Fighting a slew of ethics charges, DeLay himself has raised more than $1 million for his own legal defense fund since 2000. Evidence before the House ethics committee suggests that lobbyist Jack Abramoff may have bankrolled a lavish junket that DeLay took to Europe in 2000. Such a payment would violate House rules that bar lobbyists from paying for congressional travel (see “Senatorial Courtesy,” August 26, 2005). A federal grand jury separately indicted Abramoff last month, charging him with defrauding lenders when he bought a $148 million casino business in 2000.

One $6,000 donor to DeLay’s legal fund is Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA), who announced last month that he is starting his own legal fund. Federal prosecutors and the FBI are investigating perks that Cunningham has received from federal contractors. The founder of Pentagon contractor MZM, Inc., for example, let Cunningham live on his 42-foot yacht in the Potomac when the congressman was in Washington. MZM founder Mitchell Wade also bought Cunningham’s Southern California home for $1.7 million in 2003—only to sell it shortly thereafter at a $700,000 loss.

No evidence has surfaced yet that anyone has organized legal-defense funds for Bush strategist Karl Rove or Ohio’s embattled Republican governor. Rove is a central player in the criminal probe into how the not-so-secret cover of CIA agent Valerie Plame got blown, apparently as retaliation against Plame’s husband after he refuted a White House claim that Saddam Hussein had gone nuclear-bomb shopping in Niger. Ohio Governor Bob Taft’s conviction last month for failing to disclose that dozens of corporate executives had paid his expensive golf tabs made him Ohio’s first chief executive to be convicted of a crime. A Taft spokesman says the governor is paying his own legal bills. The White House did not return a call about Rove’s legal bills.


Colyandro and Ellis also have political gigs to pay the bills. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Governor Rick Perry’s endorsement in June of a new Colyandro and Ellis website that urges voters to pass a state constitutional amendment in November to ban gay marriages. Through the lobby firm that employs them, Performance and Results International Strategy Management (PRISM), Colyandro and Ellis also created the Texas Marriage Alliance PAC. This fund has reported raising $10,000—all from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, whose family gave $10,000 to DeLay’s legal fund and $170,000 to TRMPAC.

The Observer previously reported how PRISM is paying Colyandro up to $150,000 this year to lobby the Texas Legislature on behalf of four government contractors (see “Lobbying While Indicted,” March 5, 2005). PRISM’s website advertises that Colyandro “led direct contact efforts at Karl Rove and Company for ten years”; it also touts Ellis as the director of DeLay’s Americans for a Republican Majority PAC. As such, special interests may see PRISM and the new legal fund for PRISM’s indicted employees as back doors to curry favor with the White House and the House majority leader. The Colyandro-Ellis legal fund, however, refuses to reveal its donors.

Andrew Wheat is research director of Texans for Public Justice.