News 15 months in the hole

Councilman Sanders pays for refusing to testify

H. Jack Pytel, wearing shades, arrives at the John H. Wood Federal Courthouse behind his lawyer to hear Judge Royal Fergeson hand down his sentence of nine months in prison. Pytel pled guilty to conspiracy and bribery after an FBI sting operation fingered him as the courier who delivered a $2,500 bribe to former City Councilman John Sanders. (Photo by Michael Cary)

When former City Councilman and convicted bribe-taker John Sanders heard federal Judge Royal Fergeson tell attorney and lobbyist Jack Pytel that Pytel was receiving the lightest sentence - nine months - in the City Hall bribery scandal, Sanders knew he was in trouble.

Sanders had pled guilty to taking a $2,500 bribe in connection with a law firm hired to collect delinquent taxes for the City. Former City Councilman Enriqure "Kike" Martinez had pled guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, and received 13 months in federal prison.

So what would Sanders' sentence be?

Sanders sat quietly in a packed courtroom, his hands pressed together. An observer might think the Baptist minister was praying as he waited for Fergeson to hear character witnesses, and to hand down his sentence.

"They had to bring him down," said Denise Moten-Harrell, as she waited in the hallway to hear the fate of her friend from the East Side's District 2. "He was upwardly mobile and he was a threat; look at what he was doing in the black community."

She cited landmark street improvements in a traditionally neglected side of town that occurred during Sanders two-year tenure on the City Council. "No other man of color had the influence he had."

Many citizens from the East Side attended the sentencing procedure last Wednesday hoping to convince Fergeson to consider Sanders' years of community service, and allow him to continue his work to eradicate drug abuse and help East Siders get jobs.

On Martin Luther King Day, Sanders supporters gathered 1,000 signatures on a petition and sent it to Fergeson. There were numerous letters written and signed by neighbors on the East Side, pleading for leniency, pleading to keep Sanders out of prison.

James Turner, a retired U.S. Air Force captain, took the podium and told the judge that he helped Sanders get elected. "I was impressed with what he had been doing in the community and what he has continued to do since his indictment."

Anthony Edwards asked the judge to give Sanders probation, and possibly "house detainment. He has been a remarkable presence in the city. He has a passion for community leadership ... he has the courage to face the public and withstand the scrutiny of public opinion."

Beverly Watts-Davis of San Antonio Fighting Back related how Sanders worked with that organization to secure grants to help fight drug abuse on the East Side, where the community has lost its "porch effect." People used to sit on their front porches, but now cower inside for fear of gangs and random drive-by shootings. "This is one man I pray we don't have to lose. San Antonio owes a great debt to John Sanders."

Sanders finally had an opportunity to speak for himself before the judge. "I apologize to the City of San Antonio, particularly to the people in my district. Everyone who knows me knows that my entire life of service to the community was not predicated by money."

U.S. Attorney Charles Jenkins acknowledged that Sanders was a likeable person, but argued that he had refused to confess his crime. Instead, Jenkins argued "he accepted responsibility in the least socially acceptable way. John Sanders refused to testify; he could have testified."

In other words, Sanders pled his innocence, at least until Martin took a guilty plea and agreed to testify against him, which prompted Sanders to plead guilty.

Fergeson gave Martin 13 months in prison for his cooperation in testifying against Sanders.

Moten-Harrell, a schoolteacher, said she saw the Sanders bribery scandal as an opportunity to teach her fourth graders a new vocabulary word: "entrapment."

Sanders was sentenced to 15 months in prison, plus two years supervised release, and was told to report to the Bureau of Prisons by June 15. "This case has raised such a cloud over city government in San Antonio," Fergeson said. "This has been a terrible thing ... it has eroded confidence in city officials ... it hurts the democratic process."

By Michael Cary


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