A federal jury found former San Antonio Independent School District trustee Olga Hernandez not guilty on bribery and fraud charges on Tuesday.
The jury deliberated for more than five hours following a weeklong trial in which Hernandez faced federal charges of conspiracy to solicit and accept bribes, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
“We respect the jury’s decision,” said Daryl Fields, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, adding that he did not know of any plans to appeal the decision.
“It was an honor to represent someone who I truly thought was innocent,” lead defense attorney William Reid IV said after the verdict was announced. “There was enormous pressure to do justice here. What these 12 jurors did was the right thing in telling the government that they were wrong.”
In his closing arguments Tuesday, Reid said the government did not prove that Hernandez knowingly took part in a scheme to rig the school district’s contract bidding process in favor of a specific insurance broker in return for gifts.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Roomberg, the lead prosecutor for the government, had said during his closing arguments that Hernandez willingly took part in a scheme to solicit and accept bribes and to defraud the district.
When reached by phone Tuesday night, Roomberg declined to comment on the verdict.
Reid and the defense team argued that Hernandez truly believed the gifts were a result of her friendships with associates of the insurance firm, and that the government relied on questionable testimony from its witnesses.
Hernandez testified in her own defense on Monday, denying that accepting gifts, payments, or campaign contributions amounted to her support for Mullen Pension & Benefits Group, a local insurance brokerage firm.
She also disavowed knowledge of any conspiracy involving insurance broker Samuel Mullen and his former employee Joshua Cerna, and William Haff, an insurance consultant for school districts.
Prosecutors said Hernandez over the years received a $500 gift card for jewelry, plane tickets, lavish meals, gambling vouchers, campaign contributions, complimentary hotel stays, and even a payment for one of her birthday parties.
In return, prosecutors said, the Mullen Group sought her influence in district consideration on employee insurance contracts. As a result, prosecutors contended, the now-defunct Mullen Group earned significant commissions from board-approved contracts.
“Cerna and Mullen would’ve never given these things to the defendant if she did not support the Mullen Group,” Roomberg said.
Roomberg argued that during meetings and meals, Haff and Cerna coached Hernandez on which talking points and questions to raise about the Mullen Group’s insurance offerings at board sessions and with district staff.
“[Hernandez] never voted against anything that the Mullens wanted,” Roomberg said. “She advocated for them out in the open and behind the scenes, and they never called it a conspiracy. They called it a team.”
Cerna, Haff, and Mullen all testified for the prosecution last week, recalling a reliability on Hernandez’s support.
In her testimony, Hernandez said she felt any private talks with Mullen, Cerna, or Haff were merely informational in nature regarding the insurance company’s products, and that she was working in the best interests of SAISD and its employees.
On Tuesday, Reid said the federal government had little evidence to prove Hernandez willfully conspired toward wire fraud and bribery, or that she helped rig the contract bidding process. He also asked why – if Hernandez were truly a corrupt public official – she had turned down a $1,000 Saks Fifth Avenue gift card from Cerna in 2015.
Reid added that prosecutors had failed to acknowledge this in their case against Hernandez.
According to Reid, Hernandez genuinely believed representatives of Mullen were only interested in educating her about school district insurance, and that she saw the gifts as just that – gifts, not bribes.
“Since when is being a friend with a political contributor a crime?” Reid asked.
Reid said it’s hard to believe that Hernandez, who worked as an SAISD secretary for 30 years, would be an insurance expert in a conspiracy for years. She was deceived, he argued, by people she thought were her friends.
Reid claimed those so-called former friends – Mullen, Cerna, and Haff – all testified against Hernandez only “to save their hides” in defending their roles in the scheme.
“You know what’s more valuable than money? Liberty,” he said.
Reid recalled cross-examining FBI special agent Darren Holmes, the lead investigator, last week on why the government kept pursuing Hernandez for years even after it compiled enough evidence of conspiracy against Cerna and the Mullen Group by 2010.
The FBI’s public corruption case, Operation Wicked Trust, found that the Mullen Group, through Cerna, a then-Harlandale Independent School District trustee, worked to get business from SAISD and other school districts in similar schemes.
Reid said the federal government’s case was one of “confirmation bias:” “They heard what they wanted to hear, and they saw what they wanted to see.”