The top elected official in a South Texas county called for the local district attorney to resign Tuesday after he was indicted on federal racketeering charges.
District Attorney Armando Villalobos, who is accused of taking more than $100,000 in bribes and kickbacks, should step down and focus on defending himself against charges of extortion and honest services fraud, Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos said. The charges came after a years-long investigation that has snarled local attorneys and officials.
"The concern is obvious: to try to effectively and efficiently run and manage his office under a cloud of indictment," said Cascos, the county's top elected administrator. "It's hard enough with the everyday challenges that that office encounters."
Villalobos, who also is running for Congress in the Democratic primary, has denied the allegations and insisted the case would not affect his office. His attorney, Joel Androphy, reiterated Tuesday that Villalobos would not step down because he has done nothing wrong.
"Armando is an honest man and again this is desperate people down there saying desperate things," Androphy said.
Prosecutors accuse Villalobos of soliciting and accepting money and kickbacks for favorable discretion, including in decisions to minimize charges, pretrial diversion agreements and case dismissals. Monday's indictments of Villalobos and his former law partner Eduardo Lucio stemmed from an investigation into the county's criminal justice system that has implicated attorneys, a former legislator and, at its center, former state District Judge Abel Limas, who pleaded guilty to racketeering last year.
Texas law allows for the immediate removal of a county official convicted of a felony or misdemeanor involving official misconduct, but not for an indictment. Cascos, the official calling for Villalobos to step down, conceded "our hands are tied in terms of what we can do."
However, there is a process for petitioning a district judge to remove an elected county official from office on the grounds of official misconduct. Anyone who has resided in Cameron County for at least six months and is not under indictment can make the petition to the judge, according to state law. The petition must explain the grounds for the removal in detail. After another step, the judge can make the elected official appear to answer the charge and possibly suspend him or her pending trial on the alleged misconduct. That process would be separate from the federal indictment.
Cascos said the indictment affects the entire district attorney's office.
"Obviously the concern is not only what does it do to pending cases or coming up cases, but past cases where the attorneys may have thought something happened," Cascos said. "Anything that had to do with plea bargaining or whatever, those are suspect. So I would imagine there will be some defense attorneys who are going to look at their case and see if there was anything they believe was inappropriate and obviously want to bring it back."
Androphy said it was his job to mount Villalobos' defense while his client focused on running the district attorney's office and his congressional campaign. The attorney said he was told that federal prosecutors had 40,000 hours of recorded phone calls between dozens of people related to the various investigations, but he promised that Villalobos would not be implicated in any of them.
"This is by no means disruptive to his office or to his campaign," Androphy said.
Moises Salas, a Brownsville defense attorney, said he didn't have plans to review any of his old cases, but expected the indictment to open "a whole other can of worms."
"I think probably something like that it might take some time for some lawyers to determine whether or not they have grounds to ask that some cases be re-evaluated," Salas said. "They'll probably want to go back and take a look at their files."