Ex-Texas judge changes plea, admits to bribery

April 1, 2011 4:10:29 PM PDT
A former state district judge who ran a busy South Texas courtroom has pleaded guilty to charges of taking more than $250,000 in bribes from attorneys in exchange for favors from the bench, including dismissing charges and easing probation terms.

Abel C. Limas, who ran the 404th district court in Brownsville from 2001 to 2008, was arrested Thursday and pleaded guilty hours later in federal court. The 57-year-old, who is also a former Brownsville police officer, is scheduled to be sentenced in July.

A 17-page indictment alleges Limas accepted money from at least four unnamed attorneys. Two of them allegedly paid Limas $235,000 alone for favorable consideration in civil cases, though the indictment does not go into specific detail.

U.S. Attorney Office's spokeswoman Angela Dodge said Friday she could not provide any details about the case. Limas declined comment after making his plea, and his attorney, Chip Lewis of Houston, did not return a phone message Friday. Limas was freed on a $50,000 bond.

From his Brownsville courtroom, Limas handled everything from capital murder cases to civil cases and divorce proceedings. Attorneys who argued cases before Limas greeted the news with disappointment but not surprise, saying rumors dogged the former judge for the past year.

Limas resumed a law practice after losing his re-election bid in 2008. He states on his website that he presided over more than 160 jury trials.

"In addition, as a former judge, I can quickly and precisely determine if a court is acting within the boundaries of justice, allowing you to feel confident that justice will be served," the website reads.

It was unclear what affect Limas' guilty plea might have on closed cases he oversaw. Legal experts called the situation rare but did not believe that Limas admitting to accepting money in some cases was necessarily grounds for appealing other decisions.

Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos said in a statement that, generally speaking, the judicial system is not set up to protect the state's right to re-prosecute. Villalobos also said his office has been given no information about which criminal cases were the subject of Limas' guilty plea.

Brownsville attorney Arnold Aguilar, who had several cases before Limas, said the indictment didn't cause him to second-guess the outcomes.

"After I heard about the indictment came down, I didn't think, 'Oh dear, all my cases must have been badly decided," Aguilar said. "For the most part the judge is just a referee. He doesn't control most of the actions."

The state Commission on Judicial Conduct never publicly disciplined Limas. Seana Willing, the agency's executive director, said she could not disclose whether Limas was ever the focus of an investigation.

Limas initially pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Felix Recio. He later appeared before U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen and pleaded guilty in a plea agreement.

The indictment charges Lima with using his court to "generate income ... through bribery, extortion, favoritism, improper influence, personal self-enrichment, self-dealing, concealment and conflict of interest." It goes on to list eight separate alleged episodes of racketeering.

The sentence for racketeering ranges from 10 years to life.

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