News

Texas may still be giving state-funded pension to convicted elected officials

Numerous former government officials convicted on corruption charges, ranging from a former Texas attorney general to local mayors and district clerks, are still eligible to collect lucrative public pensions, a Texas Tribune investigation has found.

The Tribune identified more than two dozen former elected officials with prior felony convictions who are potentially collecting retirement payouts. They include former Attorney General Dan Morales, former state Rep. Joe Driver and the former sheriff of Hidalgo County, Lupe Treviño. State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, is facing felony abuse-of-office charges and could soon join the list.

But a veil of secrecy over the state and local pension systems in charge of the retirement payments makes it impossible to find out whether individual government employees-turned-convicts are receiving them or how much they receive. 

The Tribune investigation drew from news accounts and records obtained from the office of Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who authored Senate Bill 14 — a sweeping ethics bill filed last month — in part to revoke pensions from law-breaking lawmakers. Taylor requested information on politician-convicts from the state's public pension systems and provided the Tribune with a list of names in response to a public information request.

“The thought of a corrupt and criminal politician sitting in a jail cell collecting a government pension is appalling,” Taylor said in an email. “Through a series of inquiries, I uncovered evidence that elected officials convicted of felonies while in office receive taxpayer funded pensions in prison."

Taylor said he couldn't provide details on which convicted former officials received retirement pay or the amount they receive.

The Tribune obtained a list of 45 elected officials who might be qualified to receive pensions despite prior felony convictions. Of those, the Tribune has identified 29 government officials who have fulfilled the minimum requirements to collect retirement pay, despite convictions for crimes ranging from drug trafficking to extortion.

Among the former officials eligible to collect retirement pay either now or when they reach retirement age are:

  • Morales, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to altering government records to give lawyer friend Marc Murr more than $500 million from the $17.3 billion settlement that tobacco companies paid the state to alleviate health care costs for damages caused by smoking. After serving eight years as attorney general and six years as a state representative, Morales served three years in federal prison. Morales could not be reached for comment.
  • Former state Rep. Jim Solis, D-Harlingen, who in 2011 pleaded guilty to helping former state District Judge Abel C. Limas with his racketeering scheme; an attorney at the time, Solis admitted to paying Limas $8,000 for more favorable rulings. He served three years in prison, while Limas is still serving a six-year sentence in federal prison. Solis could not be reached for comment.
  • Driver, the former lawmaker who pleaded guilty in 2011 to abuse-of-office charges for double-billing his campaign and the state for travel expenses. Driver, who is eligible to collect $64,400 a year in retirement based on his 20 years of service, declined to comment on the pension revocation legislation.
  • Treviño, the former Hidalgo County sheriff, pleaded guilty to money laundering after he admitted to accepting campaign contributions from a convicted drug trafficker. Treviño was sentenced to five years in prison and will not be released until January 2019.

"This adds insult to the public's injury," Taylor said. "Not one dime from hardworking, honest Texas families should fund corrupt politicians who disgraced their office and betrayed the people's trust.”

Taylor's bill would not apply retroactively, and because it only covers felony convictions, it does not cover all law-breaking government employees. For example, it wouldn't apply to cases like that of former Panola County Sheriff Ron Clinton, who pleaded guilty to tampering with a government document in 2013 and had his record cleared after successfully completing three years' probation, or former Marion County Commissioner C.E. Bourne, who was found guilty of two misdemeanors for stealing diesel fuel from the county’s precinct barn.

The bill would apply to all major retirement systems, including the Judicial Retirement System, for judges; the Employees Retirement System of Texas, which covers state employees and statewide elected officials; and the retirement systems for municipal and county employees. 

Under current law, only judges can have their pensions revoked after committing a crime, but that’s not automatic. Every judge on the Tribune's list resigned before they could be removed from office, allowing them to remain eligible to collect retirement pay.

It's unclear how — or whether — Taylor's bill would affect Dukes, who was recently indicted for abuse-of-office felonies and misdemeanors and would still be eligible under current law to collect $70,840 a year in retirement pay for her 22 years of service even if she's convicted.

The Senate approved SB 14 unanimously on Feb. 7; state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, is expected to spearhead the ethics reform effort, including the pension revocation provision, in the House. If passed, the bill would take effect on Sept. 1.

But the bill doesn't address the lack of public access to retirement pay records — even when money is going to convicted felons.

Starting in the late 1990s, state lawmakers began closing off public access to their own retirement benefits records — and those of state employees. In a state that pays its legislators only $7,200 per year, pensions constitute a legislator’s biggest payday: after eight years of service, they are eligible for $25,760 per year in retirement pay by age 60; after 25 years of service they can net $80,500 per year.

Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, said he believes the secrecy effort came after his group successfully gathered information about legislators-turned-lobbyists collecting pensions in the 1990s.

TPJ found around 50 former lawmakers working as lobbyists and wanted to know how much retirement they collected from the state while lobbying their old colleagues. But the retirement system refused to release the data, arguing that individual retirement information was private. So TPJ asked for a grand total, and Morales, who was attorney general at the time, ruled in their favor.

But when TPJ tried to update the data a decade later, legislation blocked them.

“Since that first open records request, [the Legislature] had passed two or three bills to prevent people like us doing things like that ever again,” Wheat said. “We ended up filing a lawsuit trying to get a judge to force them to turn over the data.”

A 2011 bill made existing confidentiality statutes even tighter, and TPJ lost the case for retirement records access in 2013 when a Travis County judge dismissed their suit. 

Convicted Texas employees who qualify for pensions

Because Texas currently has no law in place revoking state-funded pensions from lawbreaking lawmakers, we've curated a running list of Texas employees who have committed felonies and are potentially receiving pensions from the state. However, we cannot confirm if they are receiving pensions because Texas confidentiality statutes exempt all government employee retirement information from public record. Are we missing a former convicted politician from our list? Let us know.

CITY EMPLOYEES

Art Franco

Mayor, City of Anthony

Understated a town employee's salary on a form for subsidized housing purposes in 2010

Keith Woods

Mayor, City of Brookshire

Took $5,650 in kickbacks from local demolition contractors

Lino Donato

Mayor, City of Poteet

Exposed himself to two girls, a 14-year-old and a 3-year-old

COUNTY EMPLOYEES

Cesar Flores

County Commissioner, Maverick County

Used his position to make sure certain contractors were given construction contracts

Eliaz Maldonado

County Commissioner, Maverick County

Received bribes from local construction contractors, who deposited or cashed their paychecks from the county and then paid Maldonado

Gilbert Sanchez

District Clerk, El Paso County

Conspired to secure a multi-million-dollar document imaging contract between El Paso County and former El Paso County Judge Luther Jones

Jerry Eversole

County Commissioner, Harris County

Did not tell the FBI he accepted cash and gifts from a real estate developer in exchange for contracts

Lupe Treviño

Sheriff, Hidalgo County

Accepted cash from a drug trafficker

Mike Shumate

Sheriff, Potter County

Accepted bribes for the county jail's food service and commissary contracts

Richard Hernandez

Sheriff, Bastrop County

Abused taxpayer resources, including county equipment, materials and inmate labor

Rodolfo Bainet Heredia

County Commissioner, Maverick County

Collected thousands of dollars in bribes from contractors

Willie Gandara Jr.

County Commissioner, El Paso County

Operated a house to stash marijuana and planned shipment of hundreds of pounds of marijuana from Oklahoma to Chicago

Armando Villalobos

District Attorney, Cameron County

Solicited and accepted more than $100,000 in bribes

Brig Marmolejo

Sheriff, Hidalgo County

Accepted bribes, including $1,000 per conjugal visit from a drug trafficker and his wife. He would stand guard outside his office during the visits.

JUDGES

Abel Limas

District Judge, Hidalgo County

Collected bribes totaling $257,000 for favorable rulings. In one case, he accepted $5,000 from Former Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos to "keep his mouth shut."

Angus McGinty

District Judge, Bexar County

Changed criminal cases in exchange for cash and car repair services

Anthony Cobos

County Judge, El Paso County

Accepted cash bribes and other benefits. In 2016, he was also found guilty of taking $40,000 in payments from a family who thought they were buying a home.

Cesar Iracheta

Justice of the Peace, Maverick County

Bribed county commissioners for county contracts

DeWayne Charleston

Justice of the Peace, Waller County

Conspired to solicit and accept $14,500 in bribes from a local contractor for city contracts

Joseph Charles Boyle

Justice of the Peace, Archer County

Pocketed cash from traffic fines

Ricardo Rangel

Justice of the Peace, Webb County

Accepted multiple bribes, including a $250 bribe in exchange for setting a $1,000 surety bail bond for a person who was charged with driving while intoxicated

Tim Wright

County Judge, Williamson County

Sold guns to a known felon, lied to federal agents in 2014 and traded dozens of firearms without a license

STATE EMPLOYEES

Kino Flores

Former State Representative, District 36

Failed to report gifts, sources of income, real estate holdings and a racehorse given to his son by a lobbyist

Terri Hodge

Former State Representative, District 100

Failed to pay $10,908 in taxes and lied on her tax return to qualify for affordable housing

Dan Morales

Former Texas Attorney General

Lied about his income and tried awarding $506 million to a friend and lawyer who did not help with a $17.3 billion tobacco settlement

Jim Solis

Former State Representative, District 38

Gave money to former Hidalgo County Judge Abel Limas for favorable rulings, including $8,000 for eight "golf balls"

Joe Driver

Former State Representative, District 113

Double-billed his campaign and the Texas House for thousands of dollars in travel expenses

Jay Root contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/02/16/texas-may-still-give-pension-convicted-elected-officials/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


More Stories

Latest News