One of the alleged benefactors of a nefarious scheme, involving newly elected District Court judges, wept openly during questioning Thursday admitting she had no knowledge of bribery, nepotism or any abuse of official capacity.
Sally Mena, the sister of convicted former Judge Manny Barraza, is alleged to have been hired by accused Judge Regina Arditti as part of an alleged plot that has revealed the underbelly of a court rife with gossip mongering, jealousy, power-hungry officials and backstabbing.
After breaking down on the witness stand, Mena admitted that she resigned as Judge Arditti’s court coordinator because during a short period of time a disabled brother she was caring for died, her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and shortly thereafter passed away, and her other brother former Judge Barraza was arrested and subsequently convicted.
“This is why you resigned. It took its toll on you,” asked defense attorney Theresa Caballero, who was conducting a cross examination of Mena.
Mena, who appeared in court as part of the state’s case, but refused to answer questions from prosecutors as to why she resigned, said only, “Yes.”
Judge Arditti is alleged to have participated in an agreement with Barraza to hire Mena as her court coordinator in exchange for Barraza hiring the judge’s son Dante Vance. She has been indicted on allegations of bribery and abuse of official capacity.
The prosecution so far has presented witnesses, including Arditti’s ex-husband Robert Vance, who were interviewed or questioned before a grand jury regarding allegations of nepotism filed against the judge. The defense team of Caballero and Stuart Leeds allege that visiting Judge Steve Smith of Brazos County is biased and that prosecutors are receiving assistance during the trial from the judge.
“We’ve heard the biggest part of the state’s case and it’s irrelevant, and everybody else who is testifying is also irrelevant,” Leeds said in an interview outside the courtroom.
“It’s (the state’s case) all hearsay and gossip. They are just trying to pile on the witnesses so we can defend. They are trying to make her look bad with the testimony, make her look like a bad person and I’m telling the judge to not let them.”
During earlier testimony, Judge Arditti’s court reporter Robert Thomas silenced the courtroom when he revealed that judges in the District Court were intimidated and afraid of the District Attorney’s Office. Thomas, who is a 20-year court system veteran, said he had no knowledge of the allegations of bribery or abuse of official capacity.
Following the lunch break, Judge Smith had to instruct the jury to ignore outside comments jurors may have heard about the case while riding in a courthouse elevator. On Wednesday, the judge questioned the jury about a text one of the jurors allegedly sent to a boyfriend, who then commented on a local newspaper’s website. When questioned individually, the jurors all denied having sent a text.
The defense team has repeatedly alleged that the DA’s office indicted Judge Arditti as revenge after an agreement for her to plead guilty to allegations of nepotism fell apart. They claim Assistant District Attorney Kyle Lasley acted as chief investigator and is now prosecuting the case, and they also allege Judge Smith is helping prosecutors during the trial.
The prosecution has attempted to have Caballero and Leeds removed from the case. The defense team, who returned the favor with a motion to remove the prosecutors, has said they will defend their client “zealously,” even to their own detriment.
In addition, the defense attorneys allege that the DA’s office wanted the 448th District Court judgeship, to which Judge Arditti was elected, for fellow prosecutor Jim Callan. The defense has also gotten several prosecution witnesses to testify about what attorney Caballero called the “culture of the courthouse.”
“This place is a rumor mill with people engaging in character assassinations. It’s very destructive,” said Caballero about a courthouse she described during the trial as a “cesspool.”
“The lead investigator for the Sheriff’s Office was walking around the courthouse asking people what gossip and rumors they’d heard. That was his investigation. This type of thing, gossip and rumor, can cost people their livelihoods.”
The trial is expected to continue Friday with prosecution witnesses continuing to take the stand.