Appeals court overturns Kickapoo casino conviction

January 6, 2010 1:56:49 PM PST
A federal appeals court has overturned the embezzlement convictions of a former tribal manager and members of his family who allegedly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from Texas' first legal casino. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans issued a ruling Tuesday overturning on procedural grounds the conspiracy and theft convictions of Isidro Garza Jr.; his wife, Martha; and son, Timoteo, a former state representative.

Garza, the former manager of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, was given vast financial oversight of the tribe and the casino near Eagle Pass from 1996 until he was ousted in 2002. He, family members and other tribal employees -- the so-called Kickapoo Seven -- were indicted in 2004 for allegedly misappropriating funds from the lucrative casino operation for personal purchases and their political aspirations.

The appellate court, however, ruled that the 2007 trial of Garza, his wife and son was wrongly moved to Waco, creating undue hardship by forcing witnesses, family members and attorneys to travel more than 300 miles for the proceedings.

U.S. District Judge Alia Ludlum had moved the trial after complaints from Garza and other defendants that she had ties to some of the witnesses in the case. Garza and the others wanted her to recuse herself or move the case to San Antonio -- less than half the distance to Waco and the location of a federal judge who was familiar with some of the issues in the case.

Moving the trial to Waco proved such a hardship that some defense attorneys dropped out, forcing new ones to be appointed and delaying the trial, the appellate court said. Yet, it said, Ludlum provided no justification for transferring the trial to Waco.

"We rarely see a case in which the convenience factor weighs so heavily against transfer," the court said in its written opinion. "We have no choice but to find that the Del Rio judge abused her discretion, and to vacate (the) defendants' convictions."

The Garzas' attorney, Mario Gonzalez, said Wednesday that he will push for Isidro and Timoteo Garza to be released from prison as soon as possible. Martha Garza served part of her sentence and has been on supervised release.

"She is really happy with the results of the appeal court's decision. She's really looking forward to being reunited with her family," said Gonzalez, an attorney from Rapid City, S.D.

Daryl Fields, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said Wednesday that prosecutors were prepared to try the case again.

When the Kickapoo Tribe opened the Lucky Eagle Casino near the border in 1996, it was the state's only legal casino and money poured in to the tiny remote tribe. Garza was hired for various managerial roles in the tribal government and the casino, while his wife and son were also put on the payroll.

Prosecutors accused Garza of using the misappropriated money for personal expenditures but also for making donations to political campaigns to curry favor for his political ambitions and those of his then-state representative son.

Of the seven people initially indicted, three pleaded guilty to lesser counts or had their charges dismissed, while the Garzas and Lee Martin, a former casino manager, went to trial in Waco. Martin, who was convicted along the Garzas, died in prison of cancer in 2008.