UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 8:54am
ALICE – Former Jim Wells and Brooks County District Attorney Joe Frank Garza today was sentenced to 180 days in the Jim Wells County Jail as a condition of 10 years probation. Garza’s jail term begins Monday morning. The former elected prosecutor’s sentencing follows his March guilty plea acknowledging his commission of a first-degree felony.
Nueces County District Judge Thomas Greenwell also ordered Garza, 64, to repay more than $2 million he misappropriated from the county for personal use. The court also ordered Garza to pay a $10,000 fine and surrender his license to practice law.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office opened a criminal investigation into the 79th District Attorney’s misuse of county asset forfeiture funds between January 2002 and December 2008. According to state investigators with the Attorney General’s Office, Garza illegally spent asset forfeiture funds for his and his employees’ personal financial benefit.
Because local district attorneys’ offices have greater control over asset forfeiture funds than they do ordinary funds, Texas law imposes checks and balances that prohibit prosecutors from unilaterally misappropriating those funds to give themselves and their employees pay raises. Under Texas law, district attorneys may only supplement their salaries – and their employees’ salaries – with the forfeiture fund dollars if the local county commissioners court approves the pay raises.
Despite those legal requirements, then-District Attorney Garza did not obtain approval from the commissioners court – and instead unilaterally spent asset forfeiture funds for his and others’ personal financial benefit in violation of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Garza also failed to submit an asset forfeiture funds budget to county commissioners for approval, which is also required by Texas law.
The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure authorizes state and local law enforcement authorities to seize tangible, personal or real property that subjects use during the commission of a crime. Once a subject’s property has been seized, local authorities can retain forfeited assets – such as vehicles or equipment – for use by their departments. The law also allows authorities to sell forfeited assets and deposit the cash proceeds in their asset forfeiture account. Because of the unique nature and source of asset forfeiture funds, district attorneys can only use those dollars for official purposes. As a result, it is illegal to convert asset forfeiture funds for personal use.
The Attorney General’s Office prosecuted the Garza case as district attorney pro tem at the request of current 79th District Attorney Armando Barrera.