By Guillermo Contreras - Express-News A federal trial surrounding 5,600 tickets stolen from Southwest Airlines has put more than the five defendants charged in the case in the hot seat.
There are judges, prosecutors and other public officials, who have had to defend their integrity after the bailiff and his wife who started the scandal at the Bexar County Courthouse testified that everyone who got tickets from them was given instructions to lie about where they got them.
There are also the bonds forged by courthouse regulars, now frayed because some ticket buyers threw friends into the grease during their turns on the witness stand.
And then there's Southwest, which gives out the tickets freely to charities or trades the passes for advertising plugs from other organizations but says it can't police everyone when the tickets wind up being sold on eBay or Craigslist or in the newspaper classifieds.
For three years, between 2002 and 2005, the airline didn't know its own employee, Althea Jackson, took hundreds of the tickets after managers rubber-stamped her requests for them. They are normally reserved for inconvenienced customers and charity.
Southwest found out in September 2005, when it was alerted by AT&T in San Antonio, where hundreds of them had been sold. A federal probe by the South Texas Regional Task Force found that Jackson and her husband sold most of the 5,600 tickets for $120 each.
With at least one more week of trial left to go — there was a one-week break last week — the 4-year-old case is leaving its mark on more than the five defendants.
“It's going to wreck a lot of people's lives,” noted lawyer F. Alan Futrell, who defended Lance Williams, a St. Gerard High graduate and music promoter. Williams pleaded guilty to buying hundreds of the tickets from ex-bailiff James Jackson.
“It's tearing friends apart. It's got people at each other's throats,” said lawyer Pat Moran, who is defending suspended Bexar sheriff's Deputy Mark Kedrowski, one of the five defendants on trial. “People in the (county) courthouse are afraid. ... They would do anything not to get called in as witnesses.”
For the feds, it is a high-stakes case that seemed dead in 2006 when a federal judge threw out an initial indictment charging the Jacksons and eight others with conspiring to commit access device fraud. After the dismissal, the local U.S. attorney's office went to the Bush administration's Justice Department for permission to revive the case two years later on other charges, previously undisclosed documents show.
In February 2008, the feds got James and Althea Jackson to plead guilty to a different charge, wire fraud. And in October 2008, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General David H. Hennessy signed off on an immunity deal that brought the Jacksons before a federal grand jury in San Antonio.
With no fear of being charged for their own involvement in any other crimes they disclosed before the grand jury, the Jacksons' grand jury testimony resulted in an indictment charging 10 other people. Grand jury transcripts show the local U.S. attorney's office decided to target people believed to have bought at least 50 tickets because it would be easier to try to show culpability at trial.
No public officials or people who bought multiple tickets, but fewer than 50, were charged.
Before the trial began Aug. 17, five of the 10, including Williams, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
But once the Jacksons each took their turns in the witness chair for the trial, their testimony was all but bulletproof. Their stories did not quite match. They could not recall details, misstated dates and quantities of tickets bought from them, were forced to backpedal and argued with defense lawyers who tried to portray them as lying cheats.
James Jackson, for instance, initially claimed he instructed everyone who got tickets from him to say, if asked, that they never bought the tickets but got them from Southwest for being inconvenienced.
But he later flip-flopped, saying he had not given the instruction to Mark Gudanowski, a former driver and bodyguard for District Attorney Susan Reed. Reed got three tickets from Gudanowski after he went to Jackson, according to trial testimony.
Both Jacksons also admitted that they never specifically told anyone that the tickets were stolen but that they assumed that people should have known because of the cover story they passed on.
The five defendants on trial have all claimed that they were also misled by James Jackson into thinking Althea Jackson, an administrative aide at Southwest headquarters in Dallas, was given the tickets by Southwest because she was a high-level employee who commuted frequently between San Antonio and Dallas and got them as bonuses.
“I don't understand what we're doing here,” testified witness Sandie Contreras, the ex-wife of defendant Pedro Martinez Jr. “We were lied to.”
At the center of the case is also whether the disclaimers Southwest puts on the tickets — specifically “Not For Resale/No Cash Value” — is crystal clear.
The language, in part, limits Southwest's liability, preventing a ticket holder from seeking a refund from the airline, testified Pat Edwards, Althea Jackson's former boss at Southwest.
Can the tickets be sold? Edwards and Lisa Anderson, Southwest's director of customer advocacy and communication, both testified that they cannot.
“It's not to be sold by anyone, whether it be an employee of Southwest Airlines or a recipient of the ticket,” Anderson testified.
Can they be bartered or traded for something else? Edwards said yes. Anderson said no.
When asked by Alex Scharff, lawyer for Pedro Martinez Jr., a suspended bailiff, whether selling the tickets was unlawful, Anderson wasn't as plain.
“I can't say if it's illegal or not,” Anderson testified. “It's a violation of Southwest Airlines policies and rules.”
Nonetheless, some court observers opine that the warning signs were there. After all, how many tickets can a Southwest employee get for free?
“If you had any ethics alarm, it should have at least blinked, if it didn't go off,” said lawyer Futrell.
A federal jury resumes hearing the case Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia.