South Texas police chief pleads guilty to pot smuggling

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The former Sullivan City Police Chief Herman Guerra Jr. pleaded guilty last week to helping Mexican drug cartels smuggle marijuana across the Rio Grande River starting in June 2009.

Guerra pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy with intent to distribute. Prosecutors say that Guerra helped cartel members bring about one ton of pot across the river in the Sullivan City area, on flat-bottom boats.

Federal agents picked up Guerra in June 2010 as part of “Project Deliverance,” a nationwide sweep of persons suspected of working with the drug cartels.

After his arrest, Guerra was suspended with pay, and later fired. He is currently free on bond and scheduled to be sentenced on April 20.

Guerra’s lawyer, Oscar Alvarez said, “He understands he abused a position of trust. His goal is just to undo the harm he did to the community and his family.”

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Texas officials indicted in Hurricane Ike kickback scheme

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John “Phil” Fitzgerald, 51, a Liberty County judge for 4 years and Herman “Lee” Groce, 62, a Liberty County precinct commissioner for 24 years, were named in a 25-count indictment handed down by a federal grand jury on Jan. 26. Fitzgerald’s brother-in-law, Mark Wayne Miksch, 52, was also charged in the conspiracy.

The indictment charges the men with fraud, kickbacks, bribery and conspiracy, in connection with a fraudulent kickback scheme, using FEMA emergency relief funds obtained by the county after the Sept. 13 2008 Hurricane Ike disaster.

The indictments charge that Fitzgerald and Croce used their political influence to award an inflated $3.2 million debris removal contract to a local business, C & C Lumber, with the understanding that C & C would subcontract approximately $1.6 million of the work to Miksch. From the monies received by Miksch, $611,000 was paid to Fitzgerald in kickbacks, disguised to appear as a legitimate business transactions.

Croce claimed to “audit” the C & C bills for reimbursement by the county, and both Croce and Fitzgerald approved them.

Fitzgerald is also accused of taking a FEMA generator at a critical time when the area had no power, and use it to power his gas station and convenience store in Moss Hill, when most other area businesses were shut down. While others were temporarily out of business, he was able to profit from the disaster.

Joseph C. Hawthorn, an attorney for Fitzgerald released a statement which read, “Judge Fitzgerald has fully cooperated with the investigation, has nothing to hide and has committed no crime. … Had the Government allowed us the opportunity to present our side of the story before seeking an indictment, we are confident there would be no indictment. However, because of their refusal, we will now have to have a trial in this case, at considerable expense to Judge Fitzgerald and the taxpayers, in order for us to tell our side of the story.”

Both Fitzgerald and Croce lost their bids for re-election in November, as part of a near sweep by Republicans taking over Liberty County government.

If convicted, the defendants face up to five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge and from five to 30 years in federal prison for the additional charges.

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Dallas police officer arrested for scamming tip bureau

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A Dallas police officer, Senior Cpl. Theadora Ross, who was in charge of a popular tip hotline called Crime Stoppers, was arrested on Thursday for teaming up with another woman to defraud the unit out of over $250,000.

Prosecutors say Ross, 50, who ran the program since 2005, passed phony tip information to her accomplice, Malva Delley, 36, who would then claim rewards. They were each indicted with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

This is the way the tip program worked:

Informants would call a hotline with an anonymous tip about a crime. After providing the information to an operator, they would be given a tip number and password. Tipsters would call back periodically with their numbers to see if their tips resulted in a reward.

If they earned a reward, the tipster would go to a local bank, and using the case number and password, claim a reward of up to $5,000.

Ross was responsible for preparing the list of tips that were eligible for rewards, and sending the information to the bank. “These lists would include tip numbers and code words for tips that had been tampered with or altered by Ross together with legitimate cash reward tip numbers and code words,” according to court papers.

Prosecutors claim that the couple would “divide the cash, per Ross’ instructions, and deliver Ross’ share of the illegally obtained money by either directly depositing cash into Ross’ Bank of America bank account or by giving cash directly to Ross.”

The Dallas Police Department issued a statement saying that the alleged action was a “major breach of public trust.” An internal affairs investigation in the near future is expected to result in her firing.

Police official said no false arrests were made as a result of the scheme.

The Dallas Morning News

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Dallas politician blocks release of police record of disturbance at his home

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City hall lawyers in Dallas have blocked a public records request, from The Dallas Morning News, for records and documents relating to the police department’s visit to the home of Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, saying that they might be “highly intimate or embarrassing” and are “no interest to the public.”

City attorneys instead ordered the police department to refrain from releasing the files, and asked the Texas Attorney General’s office for an opinion on whether they should comply with the request.

The newspaper earlier requested and received a copy of basic police report that provided little in the way of details about why the police were called on Jan. 2 to a disturbance at the home of Caraway and his wife, state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, although the report said it was a “marital disturbance.”

Later, Caraway said that the incident had nothing to do with him and his wife, but instead was caused by a disagreement between two friends, identified as “Arthur and Archie,” who were arguing over the Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles game.

Caraway briefly addressed the issue once again at a city council meeting, saying that police responded to a marital dispute, contradicting his earlier statement.

City lawyers, in seeking to withhold release of the records are citing common law rights of privacy, contending the information could be withheld if it contains “highly intimate or embarrassing facts” and is “no legitimate concern to the public.”

The DMN, in a letter to the state’s attorney general, argued that the matter is of legitimate concern to the general public, because Caraway is in line for the mayor’s office, if current Mayor Tom Leppert decides to step down and run for the U.S. Senate. Should Caraway become mayor, the public would have the right to expect that a person in that position would act with honesty and integrity.

The letter points out that Caraway did not handle the matter as a private citizen, but as an official of city hall. Instead of placing a call to the police department like any ordinary citizen, he made a direct call to the Chief of Police. And instead of patrol officers responding, a team of elite special investigators were sent.

Later, when a public records request was made for the police documents, instead of acting on his own as a private citizen, Caraway ordered city lawyers to intercede. He also used time at a city council meeting to attempt to dismiss the matter.

For all these reasons, the incident is no longer a personal one, but one in which he involved the city from the very beginning, according to Joel White, a First Amendment attorney for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“Either this is a public matter or it’s an entirely personal matter, and he’s trying to make it both,” White said. “No. 1, you lied about it. That clearly reflects on his qualifications to hold public office. And second, if he didn’t think that, then why is he making it an issue at a City Council meeting?”

The Dallas Morning News

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Houston’s new ethics rules criticized as too lenient, easy on politicians

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New ethics rules enacted last week by Houston’s city council are being criticized as pointless, claiming that blatant violations to the laws are still possible under many circumstances.

The new ordinance seems to be directed more at lobbyists and city employees who decide to take jobs in the private sector, instead of tightening up regulations directed at politicians.

As an example, politicians are still able to go on expensive trips paid for by lobbyists or contractors, as long as the person paying goes along with them. Such trips are exactly the kind that Congress banned after the scandal involving Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who frequently took lawmakers on far-away trips such as golf-outings in Scotland.

The city’s new rules on gifts exempt any gift under $50, and those that come from a relative or a person with whom the lawmaker has a social relationship.

Craig Homan, himself a lobbyist for the Washington D.C. watchdog organization Public Citizen said “Instead of enforcing ethics standards, all of these things seem to license unethical behavior.” The city’s gift exemptions “license unlimited gifts and unlimited travel, and that is exactly what codes like this are supposed to prevent. This is very weak. There are some states that have no gift rules, and this pretty much rivals that type of standard.”

Another watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, a non-partisan outfit in Austin, said through its spokesman, Craig McDonald, “The state standard, when it comes to gifts, is much too lenient. An ethics policy that allows an individual or a business to give an extravagant gift of travel or entertainment, kind of defeats the whole purpose of having an ethical wall.”

Houston city attorney David Feldman defended the new law saying there were provisions that made unethical dealings of the past, criminal offenses in the future. He pointed out that politicians and local officials are still required by the Texas Ethics Commission to report all gifts received on an annual basis, and that the local law is similar to state ethics laws.

“We had no intention to prosecute someone for an offense under the ordinance that would not be an offense under state law,” he said.

The new law includes stricter registration requirements for lobbyists. It requires that anyone representing entities or business interests disclose such relationship to city officials when discussing issues on behalf of a client.  An unnamed City Hall lobbyist called the rules “toothless”, saying that anyone who violated the rules will get a letter requiring them to register with the city.

The new ordinance also provides rules for city employees to prevent them from leaving to take private sector jobs that would allow them to use inside information of influence in a manner not in the best interests of the city.

See more at the Houston Chronicle

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Former House GOP leader Tom DeLay sentenced to 3 years in prison

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Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, once one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, was sentenced on Monday to three years in prison for his conviction on corruption charges.

DeLay waived his right to have the jury decide his fate, and instead chose to have state district judge Pat Priest determine his punishment in an Austin, Texas courtroom.

DeLay was found guilty of a money swap, which prosecutors said was used to funnel campaign contributions to other Texas politicians.

Priest sentenced him to three years on a conspiracy charge and five years on a money laundering charge. In lieu of the sentence on the money laundering charge, the judge will allow DeLay to serve 10 years of probation with community service, and for the sentences to run concurrently.

Prosecutors presented only one witness at the hearing, Peter Cloeren, a businessman who pleaded guilty to campaign finance rules violations.  Cloeren claimed that DeLay had encouraged him to make the illegal donations in 1996, while the defense noted that DeLay wasn’t charged with any wrongdoing in the case.

The judge cut the prosecution testimony short, ruling that Cloeren’s testimony couldn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert appeared on DeLay’s behalf, although earlier, defense lawyers said they would present as many as nine character witnesses.  Defense lawyers also submitted more than 30 letters attesting to DeLay’s character, including former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and 8 current U.S. congressmen.

The former Houston-area congressman, nicknamed “The Hammer”, was convicted Nov. 24 on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering, in what prosecutors described as a money swap intended to illegally funnel campaign contributions to fellow Texas politicians in 2002.

At the center of the charges was whether DeLay violated campaign contribution laws for his part in a single transaction involving the alleged money swap. A political action committee he founded, Texans for a Republican Majority, sent a $190,000 contribution to the Republican National Committee, which in turn, according to prosecutors, used the monies to help fund the 2002 campaigns of seven Texas Republican candidates supported by DeLay.

Under Texas state rules, corporate political donations to candidates are prohibited. Prosecutors said that corporate donations to the PAC were “laundered” by virtue of a special arrangement with the RNC in Washington. They claimed that the monies from the PAC were corporate funds, but funneled through the RNC to skirt campaign finance laws.

Travis County prosecutor Beverly Mathews charged that the exchange of monies ultimately had a much larger role in state and national politics. The monies helped get more Republicans elected to the Texas House, which allowed the GOP to push through a redistricting plan so that more Republicans could get elected to Congress, further cementing DeLay’s leadership position.

DeLay had been under investigation for years, and his political career had been badly damaged by his association with Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, causing him to resign in 2006.  The lobbyist, a close friend of DeLay’s, was convicted on charges of tax evasion, mail fraud and conspiracy.

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Dallas schools officials want to spend $1 million on consultants to explain to teachers how to earn bonuses

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The school board in Dallas is considering a request from school officials that the district spend $1 million to hire outside consultants to explain to teachers how its performance pay plan works.

Chief of Staff Arnold Viramontes and Leng Fritsche, the district’s executive director of performance management and accountability, told the board that the consultants were necessary to explain the Classroom Effectiveness Index, a statistical analysis that scores teachers on their performance.

The $1 million would come from Washington, in the form of grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

While one might think that teachers could understand the program, apparently it’s too complicated for them to understand without help. Another rationale for taking the grant, according to Fritsche, is that if not used, it would simply “go away.”

The Dallas Morning News

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