Four days after an unexpected announcement that he was retiring as chief of the Laredo Police Department, Agustin Dovalina III walked into a federal courtroom Friday and pleaded guilty to extortion for taking bribes from the owner of a maquinitas game room.”Today is one of the darkest, saddest days of my life,” Dovalina, 52, said outside the courtroom. “I want to apologize to my family, to my law-enforcement colleagues and especially to my community for having let them down.”
City officials were angry and dismayed.
“I feel so let down,” said District VI Councilman Gene Belmares. “It’s truly a dark day in Laredo, Texas, when the official who has been placed in an office of the utmost trust and respect violates that trust by committing such grievous offenses.
“Words cannot express how unfortunate this is and how disappointed I am. If you can’t trust your police officers, who can you trust? That’s what hurts the most.”
Mayor Raul Salinas called it a “sad and gloomy day.” He added that city officials would continue to support the city’s police officers during this trying time so “they can continue to heed their call of duty.”
Sgt. Roberto Mireles Jr., president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 911, said despite the setback, Laredo’s rank-and-file will continue to “serve and protect.”
“I ask the citizens of this community to not judge all police officers by the actions of these individuals,” Mireles said, referring to Dovalina as well as to Lt. Eloy Rodriguez and Sgt. Alfonso Santos, who pleaded guilty in the same federal public corruption investigation three months ago.
Santos and Rodriguez pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to commit extortion and agreed to cooperate with FBI officials in exchange for having other charges dropped. Santos and Rodriguez were originally charged with 18 and 20 counts of extortion, respectively. Rodriguez was also charged with multiple counts of cocaine possession.
According to a federal indictment unsealed in late July, Santos and Rodriguez took bribes from owners and operators of unnamed game rooms that paid out more than the legal cash limit allowed to patrons who played 8-liners, the casino-style games known as maquinitas. That indictment mentioned a third “unindicted co-conspirator.”
Following the indictment, talk that Dovalina was the third “co-conspirator” spread through the city, but it wasn’t confirmed until Friday when a somber Dovalina stood before U.S. District Judge George P. Kazen.
Kazen explained that by accepting the plea, Dovalina waived all right to an appeal and admitted to the charge that had been read to him just moments earlier by U.S. Magistrate Judge Diana Saldaña.
“I don’t want you to plead guilty under some false pretext that may not happen,” Kazen said, before accepting the plea. “Basically the facts are very similar to Santos and Rodriguez. You, of course, were their boss. You oversaw them and their duties.”
Kazen then read aloud the facts of the plea agreement that would prove Dovalina’s guilt if the case had gone to a jury trial. Those facts included that Dovalina was paid $5,000 twice, once in June 2006 and again in September 2006, in exchange for protection from police raids of the gambling establishments.
In all, the government charged that Dovalina accepted a total of $13,500 in cash and gifts from a cooperating witness, who was the owner of Entertainment World at the time the crimes were committed.
The instances were both caught on either audio or videotape, Kazen said. A statement from the U.S. Attorney’s office said there are also recorded conversations in which the witness told Dovalina multiple times that he was paying out more than he was allowed to by law, but that Dovalina never ordered the arrest of the witness or his business shut down.
Dovalina also offered to divide sectors of the Laredo Police Department in order to keep Rodriguez and Santos in a position to oversee the 8-liner businesses, federal authorities said.
Friday, Dovalina’s lawyer, Octavio Salinas II, said though Dovalina was accepting the plea, he was contesting the actual amount of bribe money he received.
Salinas said that Santos, who Dovalina called his “compadre” in July after Santos’ arrest, was telling the witness that he was taking the money for Dovalina but pocketing it instead.
“He (Santos) would use my client,” Salinas said. “He would use his name to collect other money. Numerous times he would extort that money under his name.”
Salinas also said Dovalina received only $200 in golf equipment as bribes instead of $1,500 as the government claimed.
Dovalina’s allegation that Santos was using his name to extort more cash wasn’t the only indication that the trio of officers didn’t always act as a team. Rodriguez’s plea agreement states that law-enforcement recordings indicate Santos and Rodriguez competed over bribes, and that those recordings reveal Santos “routinely mentioning his ability to influence Rodriguez.”
Almost immediately after Dovalina’s abrupt retirement Monday, city officials were looking to the future. In the next three weeks, City Manager Carlos Villarreal said, city management plans to meet with police officers to gather input before selecting a new police chief.
“I will be making that effort to reach out to all the police department,” Villarreal said. “We’ll be addressing all the shifts to make sure that we talk to most of the officers … so we can have a dialogue.”
Police personnel will be able to complete a questionnaire anonymously, Villarreal said, advising of their expectations of a new police chief, including whether it should be someone from outside the department.
A request for qualifications will be advertised during a nationwide search for Dovalina’s permanent replacement. Villarreal said the City Council is scheduled to meet at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday to approve a list of qualifications.
Dovalina’s guilty plea does not affect his retirement benefits, Villarreal said.
“That’s not something that we can take away from him. We have to abide by whatever policy dictates,” Villarreal said about Dovalina’s accrued leave time that the city will pay.
City spokeswoman Xochitl Mora Garcia said the Human Resources Department has yet to determine the final amount the city will pay Dovalina for his accumulated vacation time and sick leave as well as other contractual obligations.
Dovalina was released on a $100,000 cash surety bond on the condition that the bond was signed by two co-sureties. The maximum penalty for extorting anything of value under color of official right is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
After the conviction was handed down, Salinas defended his clients’ actions by saying Dovalina committed the crimes at a time in which he was under great stress.
“The chief was going through a financial crisis,” he said of Dovalina, who according to city records was earning more than $148,000 annually. “In addition to that, he had a heart attack. In addition to that, his house burned down. He got into a moment where he lacked in judgment … he understands that.”
Aside from expressing his regret to the community, Dovalina also asked that the media and the public respect his family’s privacy.
Dovalina served in the Laredo Police Department for almost 30 years, the last 11 as chief. He has five children, who range in age from 13 to 30.