- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) - A former South Texas prosecutor and one-time candidate for U.S. Congress convicted of using his position to enrich himself through bribes was sentenced Tuesday to 13 years in prison.

The sentencing of former Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos caps a yearslong federal investigation of corruption within the county’s legal system. The investigation took down a number of lawyers, including a former state lawmaker and a district judge.

In issuing the sentence, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen said a district attorney has more discretion than any other public official.

“That kind of discretion has to be exercised wisely,” Hanen said. “It can’t be for sale for those who can pay.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Surovic had argued for Villalobos to receive a term at the high end of sentencing guidelines, while the defense asked that he be given probation or home confinement.

“When you’re talking about public corruption, it’s hard to imagine a case more serious than this,” Surovic said. He was the man responsible for protecting the citizens of Cameron County. Instead, “Mr. Villalobos was selling peoples’ lives. He was selling justice relatively cheaply.”

But Villalobos’ attorney, Joel Androphy, said it would be unfair to blame the widespread corruption all on his client. The defense pointed to former state District Judge Abel Limas, who was sentenced to six years in prison in August for turning his courtroom into a money-making endeavor.

A tip in late 2007 had put the FBI on Limas’ tail, and they recorded his phone conversations for most of 2008. The investigation expanded from there going on to snare Villalobos, a former state legislator and a number of area lawyers.

“A lot of what occurred never would have occurred if not for Abel Limas,” Androphy said.

Before receiving his sentence, Villalobos tearfully asked the judge for leniency and said he is not the “monster” he has been depicted as being.

“I’ve tried my best to bring honor to my family,” Villalobos said. “Obviously I have not, because we are here.”

Villalobos’ crimes became a topic of the governor’s race last week when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott referenced the case, saying, “This creeping corruption resembles third-world country practices that erode the social fabric of our communities.” South Texas officials as well as Abbott’s Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, criticized the comment as offensive and wrong.

The most glaring of Villalobos’ transgressions came in the case of Amit Livingston, who was convicted of killing his girlfriend, Hermila Hernandez, in 2007. Prosecutors said that Limas agreed to work with Villalobos and Villalobos’ former law partner, Eddie Lucio, in criminal and civil cases involving Livingston. The trio’s target was the $500,000 bail put up for Livingston’s release before trial.

Federal prosecutors said Villalobos set up Lucio to represent Hernandez’s three children in their lawsuit against Livingston, and the criminal and civil cases both landed in Limas’ courtroom. In the criminal case, Limas agreed to convict and sentence Livingston on the same day, thereby freeing up his bail money to be used as the settlement in the civil suit.

However, Limas also agreed that day to Livingston’s request for 60 days to get his affairs in order before reporting to prison. That meant Livingston was released without bond - highly unusual for a convicted killer already sentenced to decades in prison. Livingston didn’t report to prison and hasn’t been seen since.

Lucio received $200,000 in attorney’s fees for handling the civil case. Prosecutors said he kicked $80,000 back to Villalobos and together they gave about $10,000 to Limas to keep quiet.

On Tuesday, Hernandez’s mother, Hermila Garcia, asked the court to consider how callously Villalobos had treated the responsibilities of his office.

“He did what we all know now,” Garcia said in Spanish. “He did what a thief does. He robbed us of justice to sell the murderer his freedom.”

As part of the sentence, Hanen ordered Villalobos to pay restitution of $339,000, which included $200,000 for the children of Hermila Hernandez.

Before issuing the sentence, Hanen granted defense objections on a technicality and agreed to set aside the jury’s verdict on one count of honest services fraud related to the Livingston case. Other counts related to that case were upheld.

Villalobos, a two-term district attorney, served from 2005 through the end of 2012. He ran for Congress in 2012, losing in the Democratic primary.

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