He told cocaine traffickers a bribe would clear their charges. Now, he’s headed to prison for scamming them.
For years, many Texans charged with driving while intoxicated and drug possession turned to the attorney riding the RV decorated with marijuana leaves. Known as the “DWI Dude,” James Morris Balagia prided himself on getting people accused of serious crimes acquitted or their charges lowered. His motto fit his carefree drawl, flowing white hair and immense goatee: “Busted? Call the dude!”
But “the dude” will no longer be the first call Texans make for their DWI charges — not after a scheme to defraud Colombian cocaine traffickers sent him to prison this week.
Balagia, 65, was sentenced Monday to more than 15 years in prison for pocketing money from drug traffickers he represented that he falsely claimed would be used to bribe officials for favorable treatment in their cases, federal prosecutors announced. Balagia — along with two associates who pleaded guilty and were later sentenced — was turned in to the FBI by the very drug traffickers he attempted to defraud.
He was found guilty in 2019 of conspiracy to commit money laundering, obstruction of justice and violation of the Kingpin Act against international narcotics trafficking, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
“During meetings in Colombia and in Collin County, Texas, the group represented that in exchange for inflated ‘attorney fees,’ they were in contact with government officials in the United States who would accept bribes resulting in either the dismissal of their criminal charges or significant reductions in their U.S. federal prison sentences,” prosecutors said in a statement this week. “In reality, there were no bribes or government officials.”
Balagia was also ordered to give up his law office in Manor, Tex., and pay a money judgment to the federal government of $1.5 million — the amount given to the attorney by cocaine traffickers for “bribes,” prosecutors said.
His sentencing this week concludes a five-year odyssey that took Balagia from being one of the state’s most recognizable defense attorneys and a onetime Libertarian candidate for Texas attorney general, to scamming a formidable Colombian cocaine enterprise.
“These individuals were considered some of the biggest drug traffickers in the world,” prosecutors said.
Matt Hamilton, one of Balagia’s attorneys, told The Washington Post on Thursday that he had filed a notice of appeal Wednesday. He said Balagia maintains his innocence.
“We were disappointed with the jury’s verdict,” Hamilton said. “We believe the indictment was faulty from the beginning.”
Long before he was the “DWI Dude,” Balagia was a police officer with the Austin Police Department for roughly a decade, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was fired for drug use around 1990, but was later reinstated after suing the department, reported Texas Monthly. He quit after being reinstated and became an attorney in 1992, specializing in DWI offenses.
The attorney transformed himself into an online presence in DWI law in Central Texas — from YouTube videos giving people tips on what not to say to police if they get pulled over to a website listing the many cases he claimed as “victories” between 2007 and 2017.
“I can tell you that as a former police officer, I witnessed numerous times officers making up testimony as they went,” he said in one YouTube video.
But his increased public profile did not do much for his Libertarian bid for Texas attorney general in 2014, in which he garnered just 2.5 percent of the vote.
It was around this time that he started working with his Colombian clients, prosecutors allege. As The Post’s Meagan Flynn reported, Colombian attorney Bibiana “Bibi” Correa Perea sought an American lawyer to help her client, Segundo Villota Segura, and two other Colombians who were indicted in 2013, to fight extradition to the United States. Segura was charged in a large cocaine trafficking conspiracy in Texas and considered a threat to U.S. authorities because of his connections to the Sinaloa cartel and violent Mexican gangs.
Inside a prison cell in Bogota, Balagia, with the help of an interpreter, explained to Segura what he could provide, prosecutors say. Balagia told Segura that if he paid him $2 million, he would put the money toward bribing influential U.S. officials to help make his drug case go away, according to court documents.
But when he had already paid Balagia $1.5 million, Segura wanted to know “what his money had gone toward and who had been paid, and what it had been paid for,” FBI Special Agent Jason Rennie later testified. Balagia and private investigator Chuck Morgan emphasized to Segura that they could not tell him any of the names.
“Now Segundo, you know I would never expose anyone,” Morgan told Segura, the Dallas Morning News reported. “When we get into this, it gets very messy. As you know, the lawyer has to stay very, very clean.”
No bribes ever took place, federal prosecutors said. The Justice Department found that the money paid to Balagia was deposited “at bank counters across the United States by anonymous individuals with daily deposits totaling just under the $10,000 reporting threshold.” Prosecutors said Balagia received “at least four bulk cash payments” ranging from about $70,000 to $120,000. Balagia acknowledged to prosecutors that he drove from his San Antonio office to a mall parking lot in Katy, Tex., “where he was given a shopping bag filled with bundles of cash from either an unknown individual, or an individual who identified himself only as ‘Coco.’ ”
As Segura grew suspicious of Balagia’s intentions, he retrieved a hidden camera that had been recording the meeting inside his cell at La Picota Prison and handed over the tape to authorities.
In a separate meeting in Collin County, Tex., in 2016, Segura’s brother, Aldemar, recorded him discussing payments with Balagia and Morgan “so that the money could get to the right people to get him off the charge,” according to the indictment. The brother also persuaded them to meet with his personal representative, who was actually an undercover FBI agent, court records show.
Balagia was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2016. After pleading guilty in 2018, Morgan and Perea were sentenced to six and seven years, respectively.
“Fortunately for [Balagia], these drug dealers chose to turn him in to the FBI rather than handle it any other way,” Joe Brown, a former U.S. attorney, said in a statement at the time.
The Justice Department celebrated the sentencing of the former “DWI Dude” this week.
“The evidence in this case demonstrated that Balagia had been shaking down his clients for years by claiming that he was able to purchase favorable deals from prosecutors and judges alike,” said acting U.S. attorney Nicholas Ganjei in a statement. “The Department of Justice will defend our Justice system vigorously and will prosecute predatory lawyers like Balagia every single time they are discovered.”
By Timothy Bella, May 6, 2021, published on The Washington Post