Former Refugio police chief, baptist preacher, pleads guilty to misuse of funds
By Mark Collette
Posted May 23, 2012 at 6:28 p.m.
CORPUS CHRISTI — The former Refugio police chief, an ordained Baptist preacher, pleaded guilty Wednesday to recklessly misusing fiduciary funds seized from criminals by the department.
Chris Brock, 51, agreed to a sentence of three years in state prison, his defense attorney John Gilmore said. Formal sentencing is set for July 16.
Brock's is the latest in a series of cases that have shed light on abuses of asset forfeiture.
Under state law, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors can use forfeiture funds — money seized from criminals — for law enforcement purposes. But in recent years, a string of high-profile cases demonstrated a lack of oversight of forfeiture funds that allowed officers to spend money on trips to Hawaii, exorbitant salaries, personal vehicles and other unauthorized items.
In February, a Caller-Times analysis of reports filed annually by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors across Texas showed that agencies patrolling rural highways, such as U.S. Highway 77 in Refugio, seized far more per capita than their urban counterparts. The newspaper analyzed a database of nearly 24,000 Chapter 59 reports, named for the section of state law that governs property forfeiture.
Despite changes in state law meant to improve the system, the analysis found scores of agencies ignore asset forfeiture reporting requirements, and even for those that do send financial reports to the Texas Attorney General, they are likely to go unchecked, entered into an electronic database and left in storage.
District Attorney Michael Sheppard couldn't be reached Wednesday for comment but has said the charges against Brock resulted from an FBI and Texas Rangers investigation that began in 2006.
Sheppard said for the most part, the funds were used for legitimate purposes. But Brock was accused of selling a portable building and pickup to the police department for more than fair market value and paying himself out of the forfeiture account. He also was accused of making false entries to get cash and using forfeiture funds for items for himself and relatives, and to put gas in vehicles that didn't belong to the police department.
"It all sounds bad, but what he ended up pleading guilty to is recklessly misusing the money," Gilmore, the defense attorney, said. "He didn't admit to anything specific."
Gilmore said Brock went wrong by using forfeiture money to donate to charities such as the local Boys and Girls Club.
"A lot of it is just not getting the right instructions on how to use the money," Gilmore said. "They have a statute but they don't define how you're supposed to use the money or not supposed to use the money."
Gilmore said prosecutors offered the plea deal after putting an assistant state attorney general on the stand to talk about the interpretation of the asset forfeiture statute.
Joe Frank Garza, the former district attorney from Jim Wells County, invoked a similar defense, saying the rules are confusing. He pleaded guilty to a felony in March after paying himself and his secretaries more than $2 million from his office's forfeiture fund, effectively doubling or tripling their pay.
Brock's case isn't the same, Gilmore said, because Brock is not an attorney with deep familiarity of the asset forfeiture laws.
But Brock did recognize there were limits. In 2001, a year after he was hired by the city, he oversaw construction of a new police station built with seized drug money.
"It's my way of rubbing (criminals') noses in it," he said at the time. "Every time they drive by, they can look at it and know I took their money and that's where it went."
Explaining the asset forfeiture process, he said, "We can use the money and buy what we need. We don't need approval, we just need to make sure it falls under the guidelines."
In the plea agreement, prosecutors dropped two other felony charges: theft by a public servant and abuse of official capacity, which could have carried sentences of more than 20 years in prison and 180 days in jail, respectively.
2000: Brock becomes chief of Refugio Police Department.
2001: Refugio opens new police station using seized drug money.
2002: A Refugio officer stops a pickup hauling household belongings and finds $2.8 million in cash hidden in a couch. It was the largest cash seizure for the police department.
2004: Brock runs unsuccessfully for Refugio County sheriff.
2009: Brock is placed on unpaid leave amid Texas Rangers and FBI investigation into forfeiture funds.
Source: Caller-Times archives
As seizures of property by law enforcement agencies grew during the past decade, so did reports of abuses. Prosecutors and agencies were found to have misspent funds, profiled motorists to target their property, and used high-pressure tactics to talk innocent people into giving up rights to their property. Here are some cases from Texas.
Ron Sutton, Kimble County district attorney in West Texas for 32 years, pleaded guilty to two felony charges related to misuse of forfeiture funds. Sutton took his entire office staff, the district judge and their spouses to Hawaii for a Texas Independent Bar Association conference.
Joe Frank Garza, former district attorney for the 79th Judicial District in Brooks and Jim Wells counties, pleaded guilty to a felony in March 2011 related to misuse of forfeiture funds. He paid himself and his secretaries more than $2 million from the funds, effectively doubling or tripling their pay. He did it without permission from county commissioners.
A federal lawsuit accused the Shelby County district attorney and other local authorities of targeting minorities for traffic stops, then threatening to file money laundering or other charges unless they signed pre-notarized statements giving up claims to their valuables. Plaintiffs estimate officials seized $3 million in two years. Officials have denied any wrongdoing. The civil rights lawsuit is pending.
According to a Texas legislative committee report, the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office held a party at the county fair in East Texas. They had beer, liquor and a margarita machine, all paid for with asset forfeiture funds.
Javier Gonzalez borrowed a car from his employer at a used car lot in Austin, then drove to Brownsville to arrange for his dying aunt's burial. He brought more than $10,000 in cash. He was pulled over in Jim Wells County and asked to sign a waiver releasing the money or face money laundering charges. He signed the waiver but later hired an attorney and won back the money plus attorney fees, only after fighting in federal court.
Sources: Institute for Justice, Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, news reports
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