Lawmaker acquired ranch from drug dealers

December 5, 2008 4:07:28 PM PST
Prosecutors are investigating the growing real estate portfolio of a powerful South Texas lawmaker who acquired valuable land from convicted drug dealers. The Travis County investigation of state Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, began over questions about discounted air travel he allegedly received from a major political contributor who is developing a racetrack. But the probe has since widened to include Flores' land holdings, his lawyer, Roy Minton, said Friday.

One of those holdings is a South Texas ranch where an illegal immigrant was allegedly beaten to death by one of Flores' ranch hands, another illegal immigrant, who then fled to Mexico. Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino said prosecutors have asked for his agency's report and affidavits on that case.

Flores was never suspected of involvement in the crime and Minton said he is "dead certain" the public corruption probe in Austin has nothing to do with the unsolved killing.

Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox did not return a phone call from The Associated Press.

In 2005, Flores gained control of a 6-acre tract from convicted drug dealers in Hidalgo County, on the Texas-Mexico border, records show.

Minton said the ranch itself, and how Flores acquired it, have become the subject of criminal inquiry.

"I know from talking to the district attorney's office that they have looked at several things, including that transaction," Minton told The AP. "I've never had them suggest to me topside or bottom that there's anything wrong with it."

Flores is chairman of the House committee that oversees the gambling industry and is a key ally of House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. The Travis County district attorney's office investigates possible wrongdoing by state officials.

Records show Flores' land was previously co-owned by Roel and Joel Benavides, brothers who both served time in federal prisons for drug-related crimes, as well as a third man who has died.

A message left for Joel Benavides Friday was not immediately returned. Roel Benavides could not be reached for comment.

Flores also acquired a 3.2-acre tract in Bastrop County, near Austin, from Roel Benavides -- a transaction that has sparked a breach-of-contract suit from Roel Benavides's ex-wife. Connie Louis Rayo claims that Flores owes her $60,000 for the tract, which is now valued at $102,316, records show.

Bastrop County records show Flores acquired the property from Roel Benavides and Rayo with a warranty deed, which conveys the property to Flores. Rayo's lawsuit says Flores promised to pay her $118,000 and she is still owed $60,000.

Flores didn't acquire the Hidalgo County ranch through the usual purchasing process. A judge awarded him ownership in January 2005 on the land he had used for more than 10 years. The process, known as adverse possession, allows people to acquire legal title to land that they have used unimpeded for at least a decade, much like a common-law marriage. Flores expanded the ranch with the purchase of a 5-acre tract in April, property records show. The combined appraised value is about $143,000.

It's not clear whether any money changed hands.

Minton said he couldn't describe the relationship between the Benavides brothers and Flores, but the attorney said there's nothing illegal about buying property from ex-convicts.

Roel Benavides worked for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in South Texas from July 2004 to August 2008, but no longer works there, officials said. Flores filed the claim to the property in February 2004.

The Benavides brothers both served time in federal prisons in the early 1990s.

Roel Benavides, 60, was sentenced to eight years in prison for the use of a communication facility to facilitate a felony, known as a "phone count." The crime falls under the Controlled Substances Act and usually means that he used a telephone as part of a drug offense. While the details of that case were not immediately available, federal court records list the charge against one of Roel Benavides' co-defendants as selling, distributing or dispensing narcotics.

Roel Benavides served more than four years in a federal prison in Three Rivers, Texas, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The bureau also listed prison time for Roel Benavides in 1979, though the circumstances of that detention were not immediately available.

Joel Benavides, 54, served about three years in federal prisons in Tennessee and Texas for conspiring to possess with intent to distribute 350 grams of cocaine, prison records show. He was released in August 1993, records show.

The investigation started over Flores's flights between Austin and the Rio Grande Valley on a plane owned by the LaMantia family, Minton said.

The family owns a Budweiser distributorship in South Texas and is developing a $23 million horse racetrack in Hidalgo County.

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