The federal government’s case against Dr. Silvia Beatriz Perez-Ceballos collapsed completely on October 30, 2018 when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed her conspiracy to commit bank fraud conviction.
The Perez case is one that never should have been brought by the U.S. government. Both a jury and several federal courts have made this abundantly clear to federal prosecutors.
Mexican Politics and Prosecutions Seep into US Courts
This case actually began on Mexican soil in 2012 when the Democratic Revolutionary Party (DRP) took control of the state government in Tabasco, Mexico from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (IRP). Gov. Andres Granier Melo was removed from office and replaced by DRP Gov. Arturo Nunez Jimenez who immediately launched into investigations and prosecutions against the IRP.
Dr. Perez is the wife of Jose Manuel Saiz Pineda who was the Secretary of Finance in Gov. Melo’s administration. Pineda, Melo, and a host of other prominent Mexican officials—all allied with the IRP, and all of whom are wealthy ranchers and businessmen in Tabasco—became ensnared in a corruption investigation launched the Gov. Jimenez and DRP prosecutors. They charged that Melo and Pineda and others enriched themselves while in office through a laundry list of corrupt schemes.
In June 2013, Dr. Perez left Mexico and sought asylum in the United States. That same month her husband, Pineda, was caught trying to enter the U.S. unlawfully. He was arrested by Mexican authorities and placed in jail.
Federal Prosecutors Do Mexican Governments Bidding
Mexican authorities were ultimately able to convince federal prosecutors in the Southern District of Texas that the corrupt Tabasco officials had laundered more than $40 million in a number of complex banking and real estate transactions in the U.S.
In May of 2017 federal prosecutors charged Perez with making false bank statements in an effort to move $2 million to an offshore bank account and conspiracy to hide a number of property assets in Houston, Sugar Land, Miami, New York and Los Angeles. She was also charged with collateral counts of money laundering and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Later that same year, October, a jury acquitted Perez on the latter two counts but convicted her on the bank fraud conspiracy charge. The case was tried in Corpus Christi before U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales. Prosecutors asked the judge to impose the 6.5 year sentence recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines because of the money laundering indictment and evidence of bribery presented during Perez’s trial.
Judge Gonzales rejected the government’s sentencing arguments, telling prosecutors that she agreed with the jury’s verdict; that the government had not proven the money laundering and foreign corruption and, therefore, she was not going to consider those charges in the bank fraud sentencing. The judge then imposed a 10-month sentence on Dr. Perez.
Conviction Reversed on Appeal, Insufficient Evidence
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit, in reversing Perez’s conspiracy to commit bank fraud conviction, said the government had not presented sufficient evidence to establish that crime either.
The government lost on all the charges it brought against Perez, a child psychologist, because there was no evidence that she had engaged in any criminal wrongdoing associated with her husband’s charged corruption in Mexico. Federal prosecutors never should have brought this case in a U.S. court.
Defense Lawyer Decry Overzealous Prosecution
In the wake of her acquittal on the money laundering and foreign corrupt act, Perez’s defense attorney, Andino Reynal, told the news media: “This was in a lot of ways a test case for the government. This is the first person to have gone to trial on one of these foreign corruption type theories. I think it was a serious reversal and shows the pitfalls overzealous prosecutors can fall into when they fail to conduct their own sort of independent investigation on what happened in other countries.”
Houston-based attorney Andres Sanchez, who has represented Mexican businessmen on corruption charges, had this to say to the media about the single conviction the government was able to obtain against Perez: “This case kind of shows you how easy it is in some situations for the government to convict people … It shows you how much power and strength the federal government has if they target someone even if they played a smaller role.”
This is a situation where U.S. prosecutors allowed themselves to get involved in the corrupt politics so prevalent in the Mexican state of Tabasco. DRP prosecutors failed to deliver credible evidence that corrupt IRP officials had laundered the money they stole from the Mexican government in the U.S. Clearly U.S. law enforcement and prosecuting officials did not conduct a sufficient, independent investigation in this country to support the criminal charges they ultimately brought against Dr. Perez.
This was evidenced not only by the jury’s acquittal verdicts and the Fifth Circuit’s reversal but by the jury’s rejection of the government request to seize property owned by Dr. Perez and her husband in the U.S.
Undeterred, federal prosecutors then filed a civil asset forfeiture complaint against Dr. Perez and her husband in January 2018, seeking to utilize the lower standard of proof in this type of civil proceeding to seize the couple’s property. The government sought and secured a stay of these proceedings this past September from U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice Ellington. The government sought the stay in August because Dr. Perez plans to pursue discovery in this civil proceeding, which she is entitled to do. Prosecutors realized that civil discovery would open the door to evidence they have uncovered against Pineda and others involved in the Mexican corruption case.
With the civil asset forfeiture complaint stayed, the government now finds itself sitting on the proverbial head of a needle—pursue forfeiture at the risk of compromising the ongoing criminal investigation or stall its efforts to seize the couple’s property.