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Court inquiry turns to Texans

Gerardo and Lucio Rodriguez got a pretty good deal the first time they were arrested in Hillsborough County, late in 1990.

For delivering almost 50 pounds of pot, the Rodriguezes pleaded no contest, got two years of probation and returned to their home in Texas.

Now they're back, charged in federal court with helping a sophisticated ring move about 60,000 pounds of marijuana to Florida inside modified semi-trailer rigs from 1987 to 1991.

This time, the lawyer who so deftly handled the Rodriguezes' 1990 case, Charles B. Corces, won't be available. Corces and John S. Valenti, the prosecutor who agreed to the plea bargain in the 1990 case, have been arrested and face federal charges of their own _ conspiracy, extortion and bribery.

A federal grand jury is scheduled to hear about the old Rodriguez case _ and possibly others _ on Wednesday as part of an ongoing investigation of corruption in Hillsborough's criminal court system.

State Attorney Bill James' office already has reviewed the case, which went from charges to sentencing in just eight days.

But James' top assistant, Chris Hoyer, said he did not want to comment about it in light of the federal investigation. State and federal law enforcement agencies, and the Rodriguezes' new attorneys, did not return calls last week and Monday.

The 1990 Rodriguez case raised flags with at least some observers _ the attorneys for two co-defendants.

"My first clue, and the most revealing fact that something was amiss, was (the Rodriguezes) were in and out so fast," said Steven Heintz. "That's not normal."

Heintz represented Jose Lozano Lopez. Lopez and Daniel Amaya, both of Manatee County, were arrested shortly after they visited the Rodriguezes' room at the Best Western Motel on Adamo Drive, according to court records.

As Lopez and Amaya drove away with a large box, deputies stopped them. The box was open on the back seat, with 47 pounds of marijuana in plain view inside.

"These guys were not too sophisticated, obviously," said Mina Morgan, Amaya's attorney. "They were just "mules' (carriers) trying to make some extra money."

All four men were charged in an information filed Jan. 3, 1991. Arraignments were set for Jan. 23. But on Jan. 8, Corces asked that the Rodriguezes be added to an earlier docket.

On Jan. 11, just eight days after the information against them was filed, the Rodriguezes appeared before Circuit Judge Richard Lazzara. They entered no-contest pleas. Lazzara did not enter a formal finding of guilt, but sentenced each man to two years of probation and fined them $500 each.

The Rodriguezes were back on the street. Co-defendants Lopez and Amaya had not yet been arraigned.

Score sheets for the Rodriguezes showed no prior convictions, so probation was within the permitted range of sentencing guidelines. Gerardo Rodriguez, 24, had been arrested in Edinburg, Texas, on drug charges in August 1990, but the charges are pending, according to Hildago County authorities.

Four days after the Rodriguez plea deal was accepted, Valenti and Corces were arrested and accused of soliciting a $35,000 bribe from another lawyer to secure a 12-year sentence in a murder case.

Meanwhile, Lopez's and Amaya's attorneys were defending the pot case in a more traditional manner. Because Valenti had been arrested, a new assistant state attorney was on the case.

Lopez pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 200 hours of community service and five years of probation. Amaya also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 150 hours of service and four years of probation.

And they could have been sent to jail, because Lazzara made them enter an "open plea," unlike the negotiated plea for the Rodriguezes.

"We were in a very difficult spot," said Heintz, "trying to explain to our clients how the guys above them, the bigger criminals, got a sure deal, and guilt withheld, while (Lopez and Amaya) might go to jail."