BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A South Texas prosecutor running for U.S. Congress was charged Monday with taking more than $100,000 in bribes to settle and minimize criminal cases, including one deal that allegedly netted $80,000 while a convicted murderer fled a prison sentence.
Armando Villalobos, the district attorney in Cameron County, was charged with racketeering, extortion and honest services fraud, prosecutors said. His former law partner, private attorney Eduardo Lucio, faces similar charges.
The two men were the latest to be roped into in a multi-year federal investigation of corruption in the county's criminal justice system, which has ensnared a judge, a bailiff, lawyers and a former state legislator. Former state District Judge Abel Limas and other local attorneys have pleaded guilty to charges.
After being released on bond, Villalobos stood outside the courthouse Monday afternoon in front of two dozen supporters in matching red T-shirts and denied all of the charges.
"Have faith in the system and have faith in me," Villalobos said. "I have served this community for 14 years and I believe I've earned the people's trust and I've earned the legal community's trust, and I don't think that's going to be erased in one day."
In its most explosive allegation, the indictment claims Villalobos agreed to a deal that gave a man who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder 60 days of freedom before reporting to prison. Amit Livingston was convicted in 2007 of killing 32-year-old substitute teacher Hermila Hernandez, whose body was found on South Padre Island two years earlier.
Livingston was sentenced to 23 years in prison, but given time to get his "affairs in order" by presiding judge Limas, the Brownsville Herald reported. Instead, Livingston fled, and remains at large.
Meanwhile, Villalobos allegedly had Lucio file a wrongful death lawsuit against Livingston on behalf of Hernandez's family. The $500,000 bond Livingston posted was used to settle the lawsuit, the indictment said. Hernandez's family collected $300,000, while Lucio took $200,000 and paid Villalobos $80,000, the indictment said.
Lucio and Villalobos paid Limas about $10,000 to stay quiet and allow the arrangement, the indictment alleges.
Livingston's attorney, Greg Gladden, said Monday that Villalobos insisted that his client plead guilty and be sentenced at the same time, instead of waiting 60 days. Entering the sentence freed up Livingston's bond money for the wrongful death settlement, Gladden said.