Corpus’s king of Spanish-language talk radio, Vincente Carranza 0 n May 12, 1997, a large explosion shook one of the sprawl ing CITGO refineries that dot north Corpus. Several police and firefighters who rushed to the scene were burned. Many of the emergency personnel, as well as area residents, later developed multiple health problems that they blamed on exposure to the toxic chemicals spewed from the refinery during the accident. In a town that seems almost overrun with personal injury attorneys, the next step wasn’t hard to figure. A group of police and firefighters turned to one of the area’s more cunning litigators, Rodriguez, to sue for their damages. CITGO tapped Capelo as its lead local attorney. CITGO settled the case for $3 million in late 2002. But Capelo, according to court documents, asked Rodriguez for added compensation in return for his role in negotiating the settlement. Rodriguez said later, according to court records, that he and Capelo “worked a deal” in which Rodriguez would pay Capelo $100,000 as part of the settlement. This kind of arrangement is more commonly known as a kickback. According to court documents, Rodriguez sent Capelo a check for $100,000 on September 23, 2002, just as the general election fiasco with Canales was playing out. Then, on October 4, 2002, Rodriguez tried to stop payment on the check, writing Capelo’s bank that the payment was sent in error. It was too late, though, and the check cleared. On December 5, 2002, Capelo sent a letter to Rodriguez, according to court records, acknowledging the “mistake” and promising to return all the money, which he did a week later. That is the undisputed sequence of events. The explanations for those events vary widely. Capelo and Rodriguez claim the $100,000 check was a harmless accounting error that was later corrected. Their critics, including Tony Canales, believe it was a kickback that Rodriguez thought It was more than just a jab at Canales. Rodriguez had creatively emphasized yet again that his people were champions of the working class. Some Democrats felt Canales was betraying the party. One unnamed Democrat told the Caller -Times that, “What Tony’s email really said to other Democrats was, ‘It’s OK to vote Republican this time.” T-shirts and bumper stickers popped up around town that read “Democrats for McComb.” Rumor had it that the DVC and Canales were secretly behind the Democrats for McComb outfit, and that the DVC was backing McComb against Shamsie. Sources close to Canales say he forcefully denies that the DVC or his family funded the McComb campaign. As for Shamsie, he trailed McComb by 10 points two weeks before the election. He then launched a flurry of negative attackscommercials, and a series of witty t-shirts, buttons, and billboards courtesy of El Cucuy to win a close vote. Though the election was over, it soon became clear that in Corpus in 2003, bygones wouldn’t be bygones. Tony Canales would later tell people, according to court documents, that Rodriguez, Capelo, Vela, Shamsie, Hasette, and Rose Vela should be indicted. Soon, Rodriguez and Capelo would offer him the chance. better of and wanted to undo. It’s hard to know what to make of all that, except, as Corpus lawyer Doug Tinker said, “It’s like a basket of fish. Something stinks.” True or not, the allegations have imperiled Capelo’s political career. He was part of a generation of bright Corpus natives who left town for fancy and returned home to make good. He was elected to the Texas Legislature in 1998. The kickback allegations may never have surfaced had Capelo not cosponsored last session \(with Houston HB 4. Predictably, just days after the tort reform measures passed the House, rumors zipped around Corpus that trial lawyers like Mikal Watts, a respected and very rich liberal attorney, were plotting to oust Capelo. It also didn’t help that Tony Canales and Ruben Bonilla, whom Capelo angered in the 2002 election, are also attorneys. The list of people who wanted Capelo out of office was steadily growing. On a rainy morning in January, roughly 300 political die-hards crowded into the dimly lit back room of a Mexican restaurant on Corpus’s south side to see Capelo confront his two primary opponents in one of several continued on page 28 1/30/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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