Share Robin Jerstad for The Texas TribuneState Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, arrives at the federal courthouse in San Antonio on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2017.The criminal case against Democratic state Sen. Carlos Uresti, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Blackwell told jurors Monday morning, was “birthed in loss” — but it ended with both “loss and profit.” The prosecutor said the losses were suffered by Denise Cantu, whose son and daughter were killed in a 2010 car wreck that would ultimately, with Uresti’s legal representation, win her a substantial wrongful death settlement. And the profit, Blackwell said, also came at her expense, when she lost the bulk of $900,000 she invested at Uresti’s recommendation with FourWinds Logistics, a now-defunct frac-sand company where Uresti worked as general counsel and owned 1 percent of shares. The largest question looming in the federal felony case against the San Antonio senator is whether he was aware of the Ponzi scheme that effectively robbed Cantu and a slate of other large-stake investors. Blackwell alleged in opening arguments that Uresti used his reputation and prominent position to lend credibility to the fraudulent scheme. Defense attorneys claim that Uresti didn’t know about FourWinds’ shady dealings.“There’s not a question of fraud in this case,” defense attorney Michael McCrum said. “Fraud did happen. People pled guilty to it. But the people on the outside didn’t know about it. That’s why we’re here.”Three FourWinds employees, including Chief Operating Officer Shannon Smith, entered into plea deals in 2016 and are expected to testify for the government starting Tuesday. And FourWinds CEO Stanley Bates, co-defendant with Uresti, unexpectedly pleaded guilty to eight felony charges earlier this month.Lawyers on both sides argued for about four hours Monday to a jury warned several times by U.S. District Judge David Ezra to disregard widespread media reports on the case. The courtroom was packed with Uresti’s family, so full in the morning that would-be spectators — including Uresti’s father – were at first turned away. Flanked by his defense attorneys, the senator listened attentively throughout, his face always directed toward the jury. Uresti’s co-defendant Bates was in dire financial straits when he launched FourWinds, which purported to sell sand to fracking companies. Prosecutors said Bates and his associates falsified bank statements, in one instance claiming there was nearly $19 million in an account of under $100,000, to assuage skeptical investors.Still, prosecutors argued, potential investors remained wary of the relatively unknown company. Enter Uresti, a veteran state legislator, a reputable local lawyer and a member of a San Antonio family so prominent that its name calls out to drivers several times on stretches of nearby highway.“Uresti had something Stan Bates didn’t — a well-known name, respected attorney, state senator,” Blackwell said. “He was someone that could bring credibility to FourWinds.”That reputation helped lock in hesitant investors, and that, along with Uresti’s personal relationship with Cantu — he denies her claim that the relationship was sexual — secured millions in investments for the fraudulent company, prosecutors alleged. Investors were told that their money was being used to purchase sand, which would be sold at a markup to oil companies, prosecutors said. In fact, according to the prosecution, FourWinds leadership used it to pay themselves and to cover extravagant personal expenses.Uresti’s lawyers did not deny on Monday that Uresti’s reputation lent credibility to a sketchy operation. But, they insisted, Uresti was never aware that the business didn’t merit that credibility.“Senator Uresti never asked to look at the books,” McCrum said. “The evidence is going to show that he had no idea what was going on with the books.”Uresti’s defense team hammered home the point that Uresti should be presumed innocent, acknowledging that jurors might carry biases against politicians. His 11 felony charges could carry decades in prison, as well as millions of dollars in fines. And if convicted, Uresti would lose his long-held seat in the Texas Legislature, though he could continue to serve during the appeals process.The trial is expected to continue for about three weeks in San Antonio.Uresti is also set for a May trial in a separate bribery case. Indictments for that case, as well as the fraud case currently being heard, were both handed down in May 2017 after a February FBI raid of Uresti’s law offices.The senator has also been accused of sexual harassment at the Texas Capitol, charges he emphatically denies. Those allegations will not be permissible evidence in court, the judge ruled last week.
Share Lauren Victoria Burke/APFormer House Speaker John Boehner voted to prohibit medical marijuana as a U.S. congressman from Ohio in 1999, but he came out in support of some uses of cannabis on Wednesday.John Boehner, former speaker of the House, became an unlikely advocate for marijuana on Wednesday.Reversing years of opposition to the drug when he served in Congress, the Republican announced that his “thinking on cannabis has evolved.”He tweeted that he was joining the Board of Advisors of Acreage Holdings, a corporation formerly known as High Street Capital Partners that operates cannabis cultivation, processing and dispensing across 11 states.Boehner said: “I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.”I’m joining the board of #AcreageHoldings because my thinking on cannabis has evolved. I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities. @AcreageCannabis https://t.co/f5i9KcQD0W— John Boehner (@SpeakerBoehner) April 11, 2018The announcement is a departure from his stance on cannabis use while in office. He voted to prohibit medical marijuana in Washington, D.C., in 1999. Two years later, he wrote a letter to an Ohio constituent, stating, “I am unalterably opposed to the legalization of marijuana or any other FDA Schedule I drug. I remain concerned that legalization will result in increased abuse of all varieties of drugs, including alcohol,” according to NORML, a marijuana advocacy group.But times have apparently changed. In a joint statement, Boehner and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, another Republican joining Acreage’s board, said that “the time has come for serious consideration of a shift in federal marijuana policy.”They reinforced the importance of medical marijuana, stating:“We need to look no further than our nation’s 20 million veterans, 20 percent of whom, according to a 2017 American Legion survey, reportedly use cannabis to self-treat PTSD, chronic pain and other ailments. Yet the VA does not allow its doctors to recommend its usage. There are numerous other patient groups in America whose quality of life has been dramatically improved by the state-sanctioned use of medical cannabis.”They say that there are negative consequences to federal policy which designates marijuana as a Class 1 drug — meaning it lacks accepted medical use and has a high potential to be abused. They list consequences as impeding research and preventing the Department of Veterans Affairs from offering the drug to vets as an alternative to opioids.The Marijuana Policy Project told NPR that Boehner’s decision reflects a change in public opinion on marijuana among adults. “Politicians have traditionally lagged behind the people on this issue, so it is wonderful to see one so adamantly opposed to legalization reversing course like this,” said Morgan Fox, Director of Communications.Acreage founder and CEO Kevin Murphy said in a written statement that Boehner and Weld’s arrival onto its advisory board will bring about more access for patients in need of medical marijuana “by changing the conversation overnight. These men have shaped the political course of our country for decades and now they will help shape the course of this nascent but ascendant industry.”Boehner and Weld will join the Board of Advisors immediately, says Acreage, and they have also committed to joining the company’s board of directors once it has been established.The move comes at a time when the Trump administration has taken steps to scrap policy that enabled states to legalize marijuana.Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.