Photo: Jerry Lara /San Antonio Express-News
State Sen. Carlos Uresti’s legal defense could be facing a potential setback even before he begins in earnest fighting the criminal charges against him.
San Antonio attorney Mikal Watts on Friday said federal prosecutors have indicated they will seek to disqualify him from defending Uresti in at least one of two indictments unsealed Tuesday.
Prosecutors likely will file a motion contending Watts has a conflict of interests because he previously represented Denise Cantu, a Harlingen woman identified in one of the indictments as “Victim 1.” In all likelihood, Cantu will be a witness against Uresti in that case.
Uresti and Watts represented Cantu in a 2010 wrongful-death case after the rear tire on her Ford Explorer blew out, causing the SUV to veer into a grassy median, roll over and kill her 13-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son and two friends.
Cantu won a large legal settlement and later, said to be at the suggestion of Uresti, invested the bulk of the proceeds in fledgling frac-sand company FourWinds Logistics, which ultimately went bankrupt in 2015 and folded. Cantu lost most of her $900,000 investment.
Uresti failed to disclose to Cantu that he was collecting a commission and a cut of the profits on her investment, the indictment states. Uresti also gave Cantu legal advice regarding investing in FourWinds despite also representing the company, the document adds.
Uresti is facing 11 counts in the indictment, including securities fraud, wire fraud and acting as an unregistered securities broker. He’s facing two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery and money laundering in the second indictment. He has denied the allegations.
On Friday, Watts disputed that he had a conflict that would lead to his removal from the case.
“My attorney-client relationship with Denise Cantu ended at the end of that (wrongful-death) case,” Watts said. “The law is that when the task is performed and the case ends, the attorney-client relationship ends absent an agreement in writing by the parties to continue it. I haven’t talked to Denise Cantu in five years, and unless and until she decides to hire me on another matter that I agreed to accept representation on, I am no longer her lawyer.”
Watts added the work he performed in Cantu’s case “is not substantially related” to the criminal case against Uresti. San Antonio lawyer Jorge Aristotelidis also is on the Democratic senator’s legal team.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Blackwell, one of the prosecutors in the criminal cases against Uresti, declined to comment Friday.
Cantu opposes Watts representing Uresti, according to Oscar R. Alvarez, a McAllen lawyer who filed a lawsuit against Uresti on Cantu’s behalf this year in an attempt to recover some of the money she lost in FourWinds.
“Denise does not think it’s fair,” Alvarez said. Watts and Uresti both “used to represent her, and now there’s a conflict between them (Cantu and Uresti) and (Watts is) taking sides.”
Bruce Campbell, a Dallas attorney specializing in legal ethics, said it’s difficult to predict whether a judge would remove Watts from the case.
“It’s going to come down to a question of whether the matters are substantially related or not,” Campbell said. “That’s going to be the linchpin of that issue, unless Mr. Watts has obtained a waiver from Ms. Cantu.”
Cantu never signed a waiver of conflict with Watts, Alvarez said.
Prosecutors may have another reason for seeking to remove Watts: He could be called as a witness.
“I anticipate that will be one of the arrows in their quiver that they will shoot at me,” Watts said. But “the law frowns on that because of the potential for abuse.”
Watts said he didn’t know whether prosecutors will try to remove him as Uresti’s attorney in the bribery case, in which Uresti also is accused of funneling money from a Reeves County businessman to a former county judge to secure a medical services contract for a jail complex.
Uresti faces up to about 200 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines if convicted on all charges in the two indictments.
In an unrelated case, federal prosecutors in San Antonio this year persuaded a U.S. magistrate judge to remove the lead defense lawyer for the president of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club because he might have a conflict of interests. U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry Bemporad said the lawyer might be forced to be a witness to dispute the allegations of two of his former clients.
Watts said there’s always an “ulterior motive” when a motion to disqualify a lawyer is filed.
“You’re trying to weaken your opposition,” he said before sharing a conversation he said he had with Uresti’s prosecutors.
“I said, ‘I see why you guys want to disqualify me,’” Watts said. “‘After, I would not want to tangle with a man with such considerable criminal law experience as me.’ We all had a big laugh about it.”
The punchline is that the nationally renowned plaintiffs lawyer has defended only one criminal case in his entire career — his own.
In 2015, Watts was indicted on charges of making false claims and identity theft in relation to litigation involving BP over the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Watts defended himself during the trial and ultimately was acquitted by a jury on all 66 charges.