Scott Ball / Rivard Report
News that a federal court found State Sen. Carlos Uresti guilty of 11 felony fraud and money laundering charges sent shockwaves through Texas' political circles Thursday. Some political leaders have called for his resignation, but Uresti said he has no immediate plans to step down.
“In light of today’s jury conviction of Sen. Carlos Uresti, the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus is calling upon Sen. Uresti to resign his position,” Caucus Chair Sen. José Rodriguez said in a statement.
The District 19 lawmaker now faces 10-20 years in prison for each fraud-related and money-laundering charge. Sentencing is set to take place on June 25.
The criminal charges and month-long trial stem from Uresti's role as legal counsel for FourWinds, a defunct fracking sand company that prosecutors portrayed as a Ponzi scheme. Uresti held a 1 percent stake in the company and recruited investors. FourWinds misused funds "to pay prior investors [and for] personal expenses by the co-conspirators," U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas John Bash said.
The Democratic senator, who said Thursday after the trial he would "absolutely" appeal the convictions, may remain in office throughout the appeals process. While his fate is not yet sealed, political insiders question whether Uresti's career is salvageable.
"Carlos is unfortunate in that his misdeeds were convincing enough that he's been convicted," said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University. "It may well be that [he] will appeal, and it's not inconceivable that he could get some of these convictions overturned. Uresti will spend a lot of time and money trying to make that happen."
Uresti's attorneys argued that the senator was misled and did not know about FourWinds' inner workings until it was too late. One of Uresti's former colleagues said that defense might not help his case with voters if his appeal is successful.
"Voters in this time and age want people who have at least so far [demonstrated] good judgements," said Leticia Van De Putte, former Democratic senator for Texas' District 26. "All I know is that if the defense is 'Well I didn’t know this was wrong,' it’s very difficult to go back and ask people to vote for you."
Jillson agreed: "He might find that his political career is ended because of this, and it will provide political opportunities for others."
Van de Putte served in the Texas Senate from 1999 to 2015, overlapping nine years with Uresti, who won his senate seat in 2006.
"I’m heartbroken at the situation," said Van de Putte, who now heads up a consulting firm. "I know Sen. Uresti ... has been an amazing champion for abused children. I worked with him on a number of efforts, he’s done great work in the Legislature.
“No one will remember all the great work he did. They’ll remember this case.”
While many may expect Uresti to resign, he has not indicated that intention. His term expires in 2021 and the appeals process could take years, said local criminal law expert and St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Gerald Reamey, so Uresti could continue to serve through the next election cycle or even be reelected.
In a case that made national headlines, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) was indicted on federal corruption charges in April 2015. He pleaded not guilty to all charges. His trial began in September 2017 and ended in a hung jury and a mistrial in mid-November 2017. Despite calls for his resignation, Menendez continues to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Uresti, however, will face more bribery and money-laundering charges in federal court on a separate indictment regarding his role as a consultant for a company providing healthcare services to prison inmates in Reeves County. That trial is tentatively set for May.
The Thursday verdict in Uresti's case set into motion speculation of who might run for his seat if his appeal fails or he decides to step down.
"As in any position in the Legislature or Senate, I found that when I was ready to retire, there were a number of people who were very well qualified to run," Van de Putte said.
State Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) released a statement Thursday, saying elected officials are "held to a higher trust" and that constituents and taxpayers would have to "move forward and turn the page."
Political analyst Harold Cook, who has worked in the Texas House of Representatives and as an advisor to Democrats in the Texas Senate, said Gutierrez's tone implies he's vying for Uresti's seat.
"This is what I would have written for somebody [who is] already going to be a candidate," Cook told the Rivard Report. "Senate districts don’t come up often."
District 19 is one of the biggest senate districts in the country, Cook said. "There are a lot of Democrats holding office in those counties [who] would love to be state senator."
The challenge lies in garnering the support of voters in South San Antonio, he added. "There are a bunch of really good people: [State Rep.] Poncho Nevárez out of Eagle Pass, [former District 23 U.S. Rep.] Pete Gallego, [whose] base is at the other end of the district. ... But demonstrably the most popular guy is Carlos Uresti."
Gallego told the Rivard Report he had "received a lot of calls about it" Thursday.
"It’s really gratifying. I’m glad that people have faith, remember, and want me back," he said. "But it is frankly still too early to make any decisions. Carlos has some decisions to make and until he makes those decisions, there’s no vacancy to speak of."
As for the greater implications for the Democratic Party in Texas, Van de Putte said Uresti's issue was personal, not systemic. "It had nothing to do with others in the Democratic Party."
Mark McKinnon, former political advisor to former President George W. Bush and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, believes the fallout could affect the careers of Uresti's two brothers – Tomas, a state representative, and Albert, the Bexar County tax assessor-collector.
"I think the future of the Uresti dynasty just got put to rest," he said.
But most aren't convinced that will be the case. Both Cook and Austin-based Republican political consultant Brendan Steinhauser said it's too soon to tell the full impact to the Uresti legacy.
"It's definitely a damaged brand," Steinhauser said. "Voters are oddly forgiving of a lot this stuff. They don't subscribe to guilt by association."
If Uresti's convictions are upheld, a special election would decide who next represents District 19, meaning a Republican candidate could snag the seat.
"[Uresti's verdict] is obviously a black eye for him and for the Democrats," said Steinhauser, who most recently served as campaign manager for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas). "But I don’t think it’s going to make the seat that much more in play. It’s overwhelmingly Democratic. Just the makeup of the electorate, it determines most of these outcomes."
Reporters Emily Donaldson and Roseanna Garza contributed to this report.