Monday, January 23, 2012

Audits of asset forfeiture funds yield questions, felony conviction of Brooks/Jim Wells DA

Joe Frank Garza, the former DA of Brooks and Jim Wells counties, which slice through rural South Texas along US 281, gave his first interview since his conviction last year for misappropriation of public funds to Mark Collette of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times ("As new questions emerge, former District Attorney Garza speaks about forfeiture funds," Jan. 22). Here's a notable excerpt from the article:
From 2002 to 2008, [Garza] used the funds for himself and to supplement employee salaries without approval. An audit showed more than $4.2 million went to salary supplements for Garza and at least three of his employees, and trips to casinos. Three secretaries received more than $1 million during a five-year period — or more than $66,000 per secretary per year, effectively doubling or tripling their pay. Garza said the secretaries deserved it.

As part of the plea deal, Garza was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which was suspended for 10 years probation. Garza spent six months in jail as a condition of probation and was forced to surrender his law license. He also was ordered to pay $2.16 million in restitution and a $10,000 fine.

State law requires custodians of forfeiture funds to submit detailed budgets outlining how they intend to use the money. Garza said he didn't understand the budget requirement because the statute was "so confusing."
In 2001 the statute contained the same requirement it has today for district attorneys: "The budget must be detailed and clearly list and define the categories of expenditures."

Garza said the law, which allows district attorneys to used seized funds for official purposes, lets the district attorney determine what qualifies as an official purpose. He claimed he asked state officials in 2000 whether there were limitations on how he could use the money and was told, "You can spend it for whatever, so long as you don't put it in your wallet."

He said he received advice from a county auditor and county judge who told him he didn't need to submit budgets for forfeiture fund expenditures.

The state's prosecutors didn't buy it.

"He knew better," Assistant Attorney General Shane Attaway said when Garza took the plea deal. "This is pure greed. This isn't an accident."

Garza complained that the audit of his funds and subsequent prosecution were politically motivated. 
Meanwhile, Collette reported yesterday in a separate item ("Former Brooks County Sheriff under investigation for use of seized cash"), the former Brooks County Sheriff has his own asset-forfeiture related woes, reports Collette:
An auditor found more than $500,000 in questionable purchases through former Brooks County Sheriff Balde Lozano's criminal asset forfeiture funds, prompting a local prosecutor to refer the matter to the Texas Attorney General's office.

According to the audit, some of the purchases were channeled through funds controlled by Joe Frank Garza, the former 79th District Attorney who pleaded guilty in March to a felony charge for paying himself and his employees more than $2 million from his office's forfeiture fund without county commissioners' approval.

Lozano, 59, who is now a Falfurrias police officer, was sheriff from 1997 through 2009. He did not accept requests for an interview but provided a written statement saying the audit was politically motivated.

"I have been out of politics for the last three years," Lozano wrote. "It seems like the present sheriff's administration continues to try to drag me back into it."
Indeed, Lozano shouldn't spend too much time wondering why he's being dragged back into it! Reports Collette, "State law requires sheriffs, district attorneys and other officials who oversee seizure funds to submit forms yearly to the state comptroller and Texas attorney general detailing the money and seized property flowing through the funds and listing how much money was spent in various categories, such as salaries, equipment and travel expenses. There is no record of Lozano submitting the paperwork during his 12 years in office." Whoops.

Further, wrote Collette, "The county has no record of any budgets submitted by Lozano. The audit reports that when a county auditor raised objections about the sheriff's spending, Lozano and Garza replied with statements such as 'the sheriff can do whatever he wants with his money.'" Big ticket item to be accounted for include $88K in credit card purchases which appear mostly unrelated to law enforcement. Also, "About $394,000 was spent to buy 18 vehicles, apparently without competitive purchasing procedures. The auditor had difficulty tracking what happened to the vehicles and whether the county received money when they were sold." (Here's a copy of the October 2011 audit (pdf) of the Sheriff's asset forfeiture fund.)

So the former DA in Brooks and Jim Wells counties pled guilty to a first-degree felony for overpaying himself and his staff with asset-forfeiture money, but thinks he did nothing wrong. Meanwhile, the ex-Brooks County Sheriff treated asset forfeiture money as his own private slush fund with little accountability. One wonders what similar audits would find in other jurisdictions? Are these examples outliers or would similar self dealing and/or misappropriations be discovered elsewhere, if anyone bothered to look?

MORE: From Texas Watchdog.


Paul B. Kennedy said...

Why doesn't this surprise me?

The asset forfeiture laws created private slush funds for DA's and sheriffs across the state. The law gave law enforcement an incentive to seize property that they would not ordinarily have a right to seize.

Allowing DA's and sheriffs to administer the funds just begged for corruption.

The laws also make it harder for defendants to afford retained counsel when they have no assets to sell.

If the laws are going to stay on the books, the funds should go directly to the county, not law enforcement.

Anonymous said...

DA's hosting parties, fancy banquets... "to show appreciation" with these funds should be considered illegal as well.

This is one sure fire way that DA'S cannot and will not investigate law enforcement corruption because they are in bed together. There are no checks and balances between the DA's Office and law enforcement. This case is just one example. I think the public would be suprised to learn that this is more of a commonplace than exception to the rule.

I would like to know if forfeiture $$ plays a role in the strength of TCDAA's ability to thwart any legislation applying to Prosecutor accountability. Why aren't these budgets readily available for public information. Try asking for one of those "forfeiture budgets" and start counting all the reasons a DA's Office says they don't have to disclose it.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, Art. 59 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure governing asset seizures and forfeitures was amended (with the support of Texas prosecutors) during the 2011 legislative session to provide greater oversight, accountability and direction for the use of forfeited property and money. Under this statute, prosecutors offices are (and have been for quite some time) required to file annual reports with the office of Texas Attorney General detailing the use of forfeited money and property. These reports, along with individual county budget and purchasing records, are available to the public.

Anonymous said...


LOL... but still very very subjective as to how much detail needs to be provided. A one line item budget entitled et al... is not transparent enough.

And what about funds "spent on law enforcement," that is still very broad and needs much more transparency.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"with the support of Texas prosecutors"

That's a little strong 12:10; prosecutors eventually agreed to it, but weakened the bill from its original form.

JH said...

Yes, the asset forfeiture information must be reported to the Texas Attorney General. A tremendous amount of detail is in those reports, cash, vehicles, computers, weapons and other property all must be listed. BUT - there is no audit process at the AG. It is reported, and interns converted the data to a spreadsheet, and it was shelved. And many counties did not perform the audit - with no ramifications. My guess the only folks who looked at it were from the Legislature in an attempt to see if there was revenue.

Richard Ellison said...

The categories in the AG's report form are so broad ("equipment," for example) as to be worthless. Or "travel," which in the case of Ron Sutton's 198th District (Kerr, Kimble, Menard, McCullouch and Mason Co.'s) turned out to include gifts of Hawaii vacations he gave the district judge and his wife. Also hidden were gifts of thousands of dollars to the same judge. Both were indicted and pled guilty to various felony crimes.
Richard Ellison
Kerrville TX

Anonymous said...

The expenditures were "hidden" but yet Sutton was prosecuted? Must not have been too hidden! Same thing in regard to this situation in Brooks/Jim Wells County. I don't see how these developments support any argument or claim that the use of forfeiture funds is not discoverable. The statute specifically provides that expenditures have to be approved by the county commissioner's court. Presumably the funds are also subject to audit by a county auditor and any independent auditor. And the use of the funds, as noted above, is also reported to the Attorney General. Seems to me that if anyone is interested in how the funds are being used, all they have to do is look.

Grits, in 2009 Sen. Whitmire collaberated with Texas Prosecutors on the bill amending Art. 59 which provided greater oversight and accountability. Most prosecutors welcomed and actively supported this clarifying legislation to avoid exactly the kind of paranoid, conspiracy minded speculation that is evidenced on this thread. If you recall, Democrats chubbed the bill to death in 2009 in their efforts to thwart the voter ID legislation. The bill was refiled by Whitmire, and passed in 2011--again with the support of prosecutors.

In spite of what you may believe, just because there have been a few idiot prosecutors out there who've mismanaged these funds, doesn't mean that the overwhelming majority of Texas prosecutors are in any way afraid of or opposed to public scrutiny regarding their use of forfeited property or funds. In fact, most prosecutors I know welcome such oversight.

Anonymous said...


You are dead wrong in assuming that because someone "got caught" that the process is working.

The trip to Hawaii was the straw that broke the camels back. Good citizens complaining for a number of years finally resulted in someone looking into the matter. Facts are, that Sutton and company had everyone convinced that the latitude of legal interpretation allowed such expenditures. And FYI, the trips to Hawaii damn near included every county, law enforcement, and adult/juvenile employee as well as their families.

Too many times forfeiture money is used as hush money. "Throwing a dog a meaty bone is a good way to shut up the barking." And Prosecutors and law enforcement already have a "god-complex." If money is seized then it should be treated just like any other state funds revenue. Allowing prosecutors to have a "slush" fund to keep everyone in political line disrupts the system of checks and balances.

Anonymous said...


You are correct when you question "support form prosecutors."

Prosecutors, Sheriffs, DPS, and Police all joined arms and through their associations opposing such measures vehemently. Only after the bill went through many revisions to meet their respective lobbying associations demands did all of the parties above show any indication of support. Even then the support was very weak.

As you clearly stated "watered down" is a very generous way of putting it.

Anonymous said...

"weakened" not "watered down."

Richard Ellison said...

Sutton and Prohl were only exposed after I obtained credit card receipts and bank records via repeated requests under the Public Information Act and complained to the Texas AG. I sent the information to Senator Whitmire and was invited to testify. The DPS, city police chiefs, and lots of other law enforcement and DA's showed up and argued there was no need to crack down. Then when CNN/Anderson Cooper/Gary Tuchman came to town (there's a link to the story on my website they changed their tune, and a lot of people think they decided to make Sutton the sacrificial goat. Ex-judge Prohl was caught up in it and caught in other crimes and was convicted and disbarred. I was not a very popular lawyer for a long time after all that blew up and am still not liked by most law enforcement out here who think I picked on their brothers. A 198th probation officer named Tanna Mozell Tyler Hurt Brown was part of the gang and was to start trial today for her own alleged felonies but was lifeflighted to San Antonio after being found unconscious.

Richard Ellison said...

p.s. - the Texas AG did not require the reports to be audited. All the DA had to do was file a report on the approved form. The county commissioners didn't review or approve the budgets or audit the funds. The DA did whatever he wanted.

Richard Ellison said...

pps - my last comment - Sutton's successor Amos Barton started his own "198th District Attorney Police Force" and continued the racial profiling. He even went out and helped stop and search cars. I spent many, many hours agitating about that until he decided not to run for re-election and both candidates to replace him (Scott Monroe and Brad McCullouch have pledged to shut it down). Barton's "investigators" are already bailing out.

Anonymous said...

"...The DPS, city police chiefs, and lots of other law enforcement and DA's showed up and argued there was no need to crack down."

That statment is pretty much the mantra of prosecutors' offices today. (Yes I know there are exceptions to the ruel!)

What little attempts at holding these offices accountable amounts to nothing more than spitting in the wind.

Absolutely scarry the recipe of power that prosecutors hold. Combine that with slush money to get law enforcement in bed with prosecutors and you have anything but justice in Texas.

Wow, absolutely amazing how many people actually have no clue the free reign that Prosecutors Office exercise. The doors need to swing both ways allowing individuals to sue the living begeez out of prosecutors who abuse their positions. And the accusation only needs to be corroborated by two people in order to get the prosecutor's ass thrown in jail until otherwise proven innocent.

jimbobob8 said...

You want to see county run, business, by the district attorney, visit Moore and Gray county, in the panhandle. Although I-40 only cuts threw the corners of these two counties, there is more DPS stop and search and robbery there than anywhere. The DA was convicted some years ago for drug peddling and gun running, and the two that have taken his place are just shills to who ever is behind, this business.