A Dallas developer accused of paying bribes to a city council member has been placed on house arrest by a federal judge pending trial for trying to influence a government witness in his case, court records say.
Ruel Hamilton, 64, phoned his former employee, Leslie Martin, several times in January and suggested that she might not want to cooperate with FBI agents, whom he referred to as “a bunch of storm troopers” and liars, prosecutors said. That was just weeks after the government had disclosed that Martin was a potential witness in the case, according to court documents.
Prosecutors asked a federal judge last month to revoke Hamilton’s pretrial release for his “repeated and flagrant violation” and jail him until his trial, which is scheduled for November.
A magistrate judge granted that request, but Hamilton’s attorneys appealed the decision to U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn, the chief judge of the Northern District of Texas. Lynn said in her Friday order, following a hearing on the matter, that Hamilton’s violation was “very serious.” But she elected to modify the conditions of his release in lieu of jail time, requiring him to submit to “24-hour-a-day lockdown at his residence.”
Lynn made allowances for “medical necessities, attorney conferences, court appearances and activities if specifically approved.” Hamilton also must submit to phone and computer monitoring, and he can only call certain people, such as family members, attorneys and medical personnel.
The high-profile political corruption case is the latest in a string of FBI investigations into Dallas City Hall dealings over the years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Wirmani said in a July filing that Hamilton attempted to “dissuade her [Martin] from speaking with government agents.” One condition of Hamilton’s release was that he was to have no contact with any potential witnesses in his case.
Hamilton’s Washington, D.C., lawyer fired back, accusing the government of exaggerating the nature of his client’s phone calls and pointing out that the developer was very careful not to tell his former employee what to do. The attorney, Abbe Lowell, could not be reached Wednesday for comment, but he said in a court filing that “nothing nefarious happened on those taped conversations.”
Hamilton, who built affordable housing, is charged with several federal bribery counts for allegedly paying to influence former Dallas City Council member Carolyn Davis. The bribes included “illegal campaign donations for the candidates of her choice,” prosecutors say.
Davis pleaded guilty to pocketing $40,000 in bribes from Hamilton while she chaired the council’s Housing Committee.
Her admission came four months before she and her daughter were killed in a car crash last summer.
Don’t have to talk
Wirmani said in his July 9 motion to revoke or modify Hamilton’s conditions of pretrial release that Martin was unwittingly used by her ex-boss in his scheme to bribe the councilwoman.
Hamilton, he said, wrote multiple checks to the same candidate for an amount that “exceeded the limit for a single donor.” To hide his illegal donations, Hamilton made it seem as if some checks came from his employees and family members — without their knowledge, Wirmani said.
Martin was one of those “straw donors,” he said.
Prosecutors say Hamilton knew as early as Dec. 18 that Martin was a potential government witness in the case because they gave her name, along with others, to his defense attorneys. About three weeks later, Hamilton left a voice mail on Martin’s cellphone, according to prosecutors.
It was the first time he had contacted Martin since she was fired in 2015 from his company, AmeriSouth, court records say. Martin, who was AmeriSouth’s human resources director, began working for the company in 1987, court records show.
When the two finally spoke on Jan. 13, the call was recorded and the FBI was listening. Hamilton offered to pay for a lawyer to represent Martin, court records show. Wirmani’s motion contained several excerpts from the calls, including the following from Hamilton:
“Obviously I’ve got to say this right. If the FBI contacts you and you want to speak with them, you can. You don’t have to. You can get counsel. You can hire anybody you want and obviously that costs money. Or the company is willing to pay for counsel for everybody.”
Hamilton told Martin that federal agents might lie to her and try to intimidate her, saying, “They can be very intimidating,” Wirmani said in his motion.
During another call, on Jan. 22, Hamilton again warned her about the FBI, the prosecutor said.
“I’ve learned a lot about how the FBI and how the government works now,” Hamilton said in the recording. “They will say anything. They will make up anything. They don’t have to tell the truth. They could show up at your door and tell you a lie and it’s perfectly acceptable.”
Hamilton also said the government could go after her, saying, “The mere fact that you did nothing wrong does not keep you out of trouble with these people,” court records show. He also allegedly told her the FBI treats “everyone like they’re the mob.”
Hamilton told Martin that his advice would be to not talk to law enforcement without a lawyer, court records say.
“I can’t tell you, you can’t do it, you know, because I can get in trouble,” he said in the call transcript. “I’m hoping to keep everybody out of this.”
Dislike of FBI
Lowell, Hamilton’s attorney, responded to the government’s motion by saying Hamilton was merely asking his former employee to help with his defense by providing certain needed information. The developer also wanted to let her know that his company could pay for her attorney if she wished, as it did for other employees, Lowell said.
“Despite the dramatic presentation and excited tone, the prosecution spins an innocent call from an employer to a former employee,” Lowell said in his response.
And Hamilton’s distrust for the FBI “had a sound basis,” Lowell said, given how agents had treated at least one of his employees. He said they showed up to her house one night after dark, kept knocking on her door and wouldn’t leave.
The employee later told Hamilton that she was shaken by the experience and that it was “extremely intimidating,” Lowell said.
“The real issue for the prosecution it seems is that Mr. Hamilton revealed that he does not hold the FBI in the high regard to which it feels entitled,” Lowell said in his court filing.
Wirmani responded to the defense’s arguments by saying Hamilton “did everything within his power to obstruct the government’s access to a key witness, Leslie Martin, including telling her that FBI agents were storm troopers and liars, that they would treat her like the mob, [and] that the government would indict her for crimes she did not commit.”
The prosecutor acknowledged that the government has been putting several AmeriSouth employees before the grand jury to “further investigate the defendant’s obstructive behavior.”
Hamilton has maintained that the money he gave Davis was merely a charitable donation meant to send schoolchildren on a bus trip. His attorneys also say that a $7,000 check paid to former council member Dwaine Caraway — currently serving a federal prison sentence in an unrelated case — was to help him cover medical expenses for himself and his ailing mother.
But prosecutors say Davis’ goal was to circumvent city rules limiting campaign contributions to $1,000 per election by funneling money though nonprofits. Davis did exactly that when she used Jeremy “Jay” Scroggins and his nonprofit Hip Hop Government to serve as the middleman through which bribes were channeled, prosecutors say.
Scroggins, a defendant in the case, pleaded guilty last year to acting as the middleman between Davis and Hamilton.