Monday, March 7, 2011

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Former Jim Wells County District Attorney Pleads Guilty To First-Degree Felony

ALICE Former Jim Wells and Brooks County District Attorney Joe Frank Garza, 64, today pled guilty to first-degree felony charges associated with his improper conduct as the 79th District Attorney. In August 2010, Garza was indicted for improperly misappropriating more than $2 million from his counties’ asset forfeiture funds.

The Attorney General’s Office is calling for the former district attorney to serve 180 days in the Jim Wells County Jail as a condition of 10 years probation. That matter will be determined in a sentencing hearing set for 9 a.m. May 6. The State announced in court today that Garza has agreed to repay $2.16 million to Jim Wells and Brooks counties, pay a $10,000 fine and surrender his law license upon sentencing.

Today’s guilty plea stems from a criminal investigation by the Texas Attorney General’s Office, which reviewed allegations that then District Attorney Garza illegally used the county’s asset forfeiture funds for his and his employees’ personal financial benefit. According to State investigators, between January 2002 and December 2008, Garza improperly misappropriated those county funds to enrich himself and certain hand-picked employees within the 79th District Attorney’s Office.

Because local district attorneys have greater control over asset forfeiture funds than they do ordinary funds, Texas law imposes checks and balances to prohibit district attorneys from unilaterally misappropriating those funds to give pay raises. Under Texas law, district attorneys may only supplement their salaries and their employees’ salaries from the forfeiture fund if the local county commissioners court approves the pay raises. Despite those legal requirements, then-District Attorney Garza failed to obtain the necessary approval and instead improperly used the asset forfeiture funds under his control for his and others’ personal financial benefit. Garza also never submitted a budget for the use of these funds to county commissioners for approval, as required by Texas law.

Texas asset forfeiture laws authorize state and local authorities to seize tangible, personal or real property that is used during the commission of a crime. Local authorities can either retain and use forfeited assets such as vehicles or equipment or they can sell them and deposit the cash proceeds in their asset forfeiture account. Asset forfeiture funds can only be used for official purposes of a law enforcement agency or district attorney’s office, and cannot be converted for personal use.

The Attorney General’s Office prosecuted the case as district attorney pro tem at the request of current 79th District Attorney Armando Barrera.