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Ex-Texas DA indicted over forfeiture bonuses

By the CNN Wire Staff
Former prosecutor Joe Frank Garza told CNN in 2009 that paying bonuses from forefeitures was legal.
Former prosecutor Joe Frank Garza told CNN in 2009 that paying bonuses from forefeitures was legal.
  • Audit found ex-prosecutor paid $1.2 million to three secretaries
  • Joe Frank Garza told CNN in 2009 that the payments were legal
  • South Texas district attorney lost his re-election bid in 2008

(CNN) -- A former south Texas prosecutor has been indicted on a felony charge of misusing money from seized property to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses to himself and his staff, state prosecutors announced Wednesday.

A grand jury in Alice, Texas, charged Joe Frank Garza with misapplication of fiduciary duty in connection with the payments. In a 2009 interview with CNN, Garza insisted the payments were legal, but the grand jury disagreed.

An audit conducted after he left office found more than $1.2 million went to three secretaries Garza called "my eyes and ears in the community." But the then-district attorney also paid himself more than $81,000, which he said was for expenses.

Attempts to reach Garza for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday evening.

State law forbids officials from converting money from forfeiture cases to personal use or to supplement salaries without the approval of county commissioners, prosecutors said. Garza was allowed to post $10,000 bond after being served with the indictment, according to court papers.

Garza served as the chief prosecutor for Jim Wells and Brooks counties in south Texas from 2003 to 2008, when he lost his bid for re-election. Garza's successor asked the state attorney general's office to investigate once he left office.

Property seizures are a common tactic in drug cases, but critics have argued the practice can lead to abuse by law enforcement agencies.

Several motorists have sued authorities in another Texas county, accusing police there of systematically fleecing drivers passing through by seizing cash and other valuables during traffic stops and pressuring the owners to give up the property in exchange for promises not to prosecute. Authorities in the town of Tenaha, near the Louisiana state line, and surrounding Shelby County have denied any wrongdoing, and an effort to restrict the practice failed in the state legislature in 2009.