Editor's Note: This is Gary Tuchamn's story from May 2009. See an important update to this story tonight on AC360° at 10pm ET.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/CRIME/05/06/texas.police.seizures/art.tenaha.cityhall.cnn.jpg caption="This isn't the first example of the discretionary use by Texas officials of public 'valuables.' Earlier this month, Gary Tuchman found another abuse of forfeiture laws in this town of Tenaha."]
Gary Tuchman | BIO
Big salary bonuses are not only for Wall Street bankers. You too can get a big bonus if you work for your government! Well, put it this way, we now know there is precedent for it.
A former District Attorney in Texas has acknowledged to us that he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over a period of eight years to three of his secretaries. He calls it a "stipend," but for secretaries who made between $40,000 – $50,000 in base salary each year, the former DA acknowledges it might have amounted to a doubling or even more of their salaries.
Joe Frank Garza told me they deserved the money because "they were loyal...my eyes and ears in the community..(and they) watched my back." And he is very comfortable with what he did.
But lots of other people, including the District Attorney who beat Garza in his re-election battle, are stunned by the admission. You see, the money comes from criminals and accused criminals. Texas, like many other states, has forfeiture laws.
Police are allowed to seize certain valuables, like money and drugs, from people who are suspected of serious crimes. The idea is not to let criminals profit from their crimes. Ultimately, police can use money for "law enforcement purposes. The district attorney's office also gets a cut; and can use the money for "official purposes."
But what the heck are official purposes?
The former DA tells me it's very ambiguous; so he felt free to make those determinations. What particularly bothers his critics is that the hundreds of thousands paid in "stipends" could have been spent on things like more police cars, bulletproof vests, and computers.
But Garza tells us he spent the money on those things too. He says he had plenty to spend. Which raises this question: does it all increase temptation to seize valuables from citizens who are not suspected of serious crimes?
Garza says absolutely not; and so does the longtime sheriff in the county. But Texas' confusing forfeiture laws have led to many police seizures that are controversial and have resulted in lawsuits. So what's the solution?
Perhaps clearer and more stringent forfeiture laws. The Texas legislature is considering such a bill right now. The Senate has passed it; the House is considering it. But Wednesday of this week is the last day for legislators to consider bills for this year's session. So unless it's taken up very quickly, change may still be at least a year away.
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