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Jack Abercia

Trevino takes a plea


Victor Trevino

Harris County Precinct 6 constable Victor Trevino pleaded guilty Monday to misapplication of fiduciary property, a day after beginning trial on allegations that he diverted money from his charity for personal use.

He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for the felony, and has asked the judge to decide punishment after a sentencing hearing on Nov. 17.

The Precinct 6 constable was indicted almost two years ago on several charges accusing him of financial misconduct. He was first elected to office 26 years ago. He will resign from office on Tuesday. He also will have to surrender his state license that allows him to carry a weapon.


Prosecutors earlier this year offered Trevino a plea deal that would have allowed the 62-year-old constable to plead guilty to a class C misdemeanor, the lowest form of criminal infraction, and retire, his attorney, Chip Lewis said last week. In exchange, prosecutors would have dropped four felony indictments on charges that include misapplication of fiduciary property and tampering with a public document.

See here for the background. Clearly, Trevino should have taken the original plea deal. I can’t say I feel sorry for him, however. As was the case with disgraced former Constable Jack Abercia, who resigned before he copped a plea, Commissioners Court will name a replacement. With this post being up for election in 2016, which really means March since this will be settled in the Democratic primary, I’d suggest they take the same path as last time and appoint someone who doesn’t want to run for the post. We’ll see what they do. In the meantime, good riddance.

Abercia gets probation

Good riddance.

Jack Abercia

Former Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia was sentenced Wednesday to three years probation for conducting illegal criminal background checks to raise money, in part, for an elevator in his home.

Abercia pleaded guilty in August to 11 counts of misusing his authorized computer access.

Federal prosecutors said Abercia and a top staffer performed illegal background checks for private companies for a fee, using a national criminal information database that is restricted to law enforcement purposes.

Abercia, 80, who took office in 1991, was facing up to five years in prison on each count, but pleaded guilty in U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison’s court in exchange for three years probation.

Abercia resigned from the $120,000-a-year job after being arrested in January 2012.

He took the plea in August, and was supposed to have been sentenced on November 26. Not sure why it took almost two more months to happen. Two of his aides were also arrested and pleaded guilty; one got two years’ probation, the other is still pending. Like I said, good riddance.

Abercia takes a plea


Jack Abercia

Former Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia told investigators he performed illegal background checks to raise money, in part, for an elevator at his home, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

Abercia pleaded guilty Thursday to 11 counts of exceeding authorized computer access. The charges stemmed from illegal background checks Abercia and a top staffer performed for private companies, using a national criminal information database that is restricted to law enforcement purposes.

“God willing, this money will go towards my elevator,” the longtime lawman is alleged to have said while taking $3,000 for the illegal background checks. Abercia is suffering from colon cancer and told undercover investigators that he needed help getting up and down the stairs in his home.

The 79-year-old Abercia, who took office in 1991, will remain free on bail until he is formally sentenced Nov. 26. He could face up to five years in prison on each count.


“He was being paid to arrange criminal background checks for personal financial gain,” said Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman for the Houston U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In total, Abercia received $9,000, Dodge said. Wiener was paid $1,000 for his part in the illegal searches. The three were indicted in January 2012, accused of conspiring to sell information from a law enforcement database, accepting a bribe for hiring an unqualified deputy and sending employees on personal errands on county time. The other charges were dropped as part of Thursday’s plea agreement.

So tawdry. Abercia was arrested last January. This is the first update since then that I know of. I have no sympathy for him.

Precinct 1 Constable overview

The Chron takes a look at the Constable race in Precinct 1, which will determine the successor to disgraced former Constable Jack Abercia.

Alan Rosen

[Republican Joe] Danna, 59, and a Precinct 1 deputy for 18 years, pledged to reorganize an office top-heavy with administrators and move them from offices to patrol duty. He started the constable’s first motorcycle escort service and manages escort services for other law enforcement agencies.

Danna wants to establish an undercover unit to combat street crime, as well as a group to investigate credit card fraud and identity theft.

“I’ve been in the streets protecting and serving the citizens and business owners, assisting them with what the constable’s office does best, enforce the law,” Danna said.

His opponent, [Democrat Alan] Rosen, is a private investor who has spent 21 years in law enforcement. He currently serves as a volunteer reserve major in the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, and runs the criminal warrants and fugitive warrants unit. He began his law enforcement career in Precinct 1, where he was a patrol deputy, and notes he is the only candidate with a college degree, experience as a patrol deputy, and experience supervising other law officers.

“One of the biggest things the office needs is an ethical cleansing,” Rosen said. “If elected constable, I intend to put forward a very comprehensive ethics policy to include everybody in the office, to include myself.”

Here’s the interview I did with Alan Rosen for the Democratic primary, and here’s a guest post he wrote before the runoff. Rosen has the Chron endorsement and has been a strong fundraiser throughout the cycle. By 2008 partisan numbers, he’s also the favorite to win. I think Rosen will do a good job, and I’ll be voting for him.

County Attorney report on Constables

County Attorney Vince Ryan has completed a report his office began in December to examine some of the practices in the Constables’ offices. At that time, the FBI was investigating and was on the verge of arresting now-former Constable Jack Abercia, while Constables Victor Trevino and May Walker were being investigated by the District Attorney over allegations that they had county employees perform political fundraising on county time; Walker has since been no-billed by a grand jury. County Judge Ed Emmett is not satisfied with Ryan’s report.

The five-page report, released to the Houston Chronicle through an open records request, does not mention a constable by name and does not refer to a single example of practices or activities, good or bad, by any of the constables.

Much of the report was a recitation of state laws that apply to the constables’ offices, along with suggestions on how to comply with those laws.

Emmett said he is hoping to see more of the substance of the report, noting there has been “a lot going on” with the constables’ offices.

“That’s not casting aspersions on any particular constable or anything of the sort, but just to come out with a simple five-page report that says ‘If you have any questions call me’ … I’d like to see more,” Emmett said. “What I see is just a reluctance to make a firm judgment about almost anything. There have been so many examples of them not being able to come to judgments based on whether or not an activity is ethical.”


Ryan defended the report, saying providing specific details would cause more confusion than clarification. He also acknowledged the report had been edited five or six times “to make it educational without being accusatorial.”

I don’t know. On the one hand, I agree with Judge Emmett that given all that has been going on with the Constables lately – and it must be noted, this is not a new phenomenon – we could use some specifics about what they can and cannot do and what they should and should not do. Common sense apparently isn’t enough, and state law is vague in places. On the other hand, I’m sure Ryan didn’t want to do anything that might interfere or affect the ongoing criminal cases. As Steve Radack points out, an opinion by a County Attorney carries some legal weight and possibly could be used in someone’s criminal defense. (And yeah, that’s now twice in the last couple of weeks I’ve agreed with Steve Radack. Once more and I may turn into a toad or something.)

Houston Politics has a copy of the report, which it notes “doesn’t mention the events that led to Precinct 6 Constable Victor Trevino being under criminal investigation by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, nor the actions of former Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia, who resigned in January under federal indictment”. Despite what I said above, it sure seems like these topics could have been addressed in a way that wouldn’t cause any heartburn to prosecutors – much of it is part of the public record now. I suppose the ideal situation would be that we’d have Constables who exercised good judgment, erred on the side of caution, and sought out legal guidance if a point of law were unclear to them. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need reports like this.

Constables and eviction notices

This is just wrong.

With the help of their taxpayer-funded offices, five Harris County constables have been using a little-known eviction fee to add thousands of dollars a year to their base $120,000 annual salaries.

State law allows a constable to pocket fees – ranging from $10 to $20 – for serving a “notice to vacate,” the first step a landlord must take before filing an eviction proceeding in Justice of the Peace Court.

Former Constable Jack Abercia, who resigned in January under federal indictment, made up to $36,000 a year in fees for notices delivered by a county-paid deputy, according to the Harris County Attorney’s Office.


Landlords can deliver the eviction notice themselves, but several constables explained that landlords prefer hiring a third party to avoid a confrontation or a dispute about whether the notice was delivered.

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan began examining the practice last year after several constables sought legal guidance. Constables are advised they can use office staff and equipment to process the notices, since the use of those county resources is considered incidental, said Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray.

State law and a 1997 Texas attorney general’s opinion prohibit constables from delivering the notices on county time, and they cannot wear a uniform, drive a county car, or display a badge while doing it.


Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said it makes “a little bit of sense” to allow the use of county resources to maintain eviction notices, since state law gives constables the authority to deliver them.

He noted other Texas statutes give constables the authority, while on county time and in uniform, to deliver other court papers related to evictions and legal matters, and fees collected are given to the county.

“It’s a bad law. There needs to be some legislation that makes it clear,” Radack said.

For once, I agree fully with Steve Radack. The Lege needs to clean this up. Abercia allegedly was not following that legal guidance from the County Attorney’s office, so regardless of what the law is we still need people to actually obey it, but let’s start by making the law better. I would suggest that if this is to be allowed at all that it be done as an official county function, by uniformed constables, with the fees being collected by the county and the records of such fees being publicly available. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in a transparent and accountable fashion. If not, then it shouldn’t be done at all.

Two modest campaign finance reform suggestions

What to do about this?

Jack Abercia

As indicted ex-constable Jack Abercia fights federal corruption and bribery charges brought against him last month, a lack of money for his legal defense isn’t one of his problems.

The former Precinct 1 Harris County constable has salted away approximately $423,000 in campaign contributions, according to campaign finance reports.

And while Abercia’s political war chest is hefty, it’s hardly the largest held by Harris County officials.

Longtime Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee is sitting on $3 million, and fellow commissioner Steve Radack reported $774,000, according to recent campaign finance reports. Abercia’s campaign funds exceeded the $302,000 reported by Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

Abercia, 78, said in December he would not seek re-election, explaining he was battling cancer and resigned after his indictment last month. He did not return calls for comment.

Abercia’s defense attorney, Rusty Hardin, said his client has every right to keep campaign funds he’s amassed over the years and use them for his legal defense if he chooses.

Legally speaking, he’s correct. Pretty much every officeholder that has ever been arrested or investigated has spent campaign money on their defense. It always makes me a little squeamish, but as donors can ask for their contributions back, I don’t see what there is to be done.

What interests me more is the totals that Abercia and so many others are able to accumulate. If you look at Abercia’s January finance report, you will see that he only took in $2200 for the last six-month period. He also spent over $12,000, so he entered that period with over $430K. Not that you’d have known it from his form, since he didn’t list a cash on hand balance. That’s a pretty impressive amount for a low-profile office, more so when you realize that he had primary challengers in 2008 and 2004. Though he probably didn’t spend too much in either of those elections – the story suggests his opponents were not serious, and as a resident of Precinct 1, I can say that I don’t recall any campaign activity. By contrast, there was a contested Justice of the Peace primary in Precinct 1 in 2008, and it generated plenty of activity. I didn’t even remember that Abercia had opponents till I looked it up on the County Clerk website.

The thing about these officeholders in safe districts who amass large campaign war chests is that they do so – or so they say – to be prepared for electoral challenges. I can’t argue with the logic, but it sets up a situation where nobody substantial actually does challenge them, because they can’t compete financially. While I’m generally happy about that for most of our incumbents, that’s not a good thing for democracy. What I would propose to do about this is require that every officeholder spend a certain amount of money each cycle, to prevent them from building up too big a pile. Perhaps a rule dictating that, I don’t know, 75% of all contributions given in a cycle must be spent by the start of the next cycle. You could still build up a big balance over time, but it would take longer. The amount and the mechanism are not set in my mind, but the basic idea is to lower the barriers to entry in a given race.

My other suggestion doesn’t directly address this but does come back to something that’s bugged me for awhile. I noted recently that former Rep. Jim Turner, who was last elected to Congress in 2002, still has over a million dollars in his campaign finance account. It’s my understanding that unused campaign contributions are supposed to be disposed of within some number of years, but I don’t think anyone takes that very seriously. I would mandate that any funds that remain in a campaign account two years after the last election in which someone was a candidate are automatically forfeited. The cash could then be used to fund better and more comprehensive enforcement of campaign finance laws.

I realize this is much easier said than done, and would require laws to be changed at both the state and federal level. I don’t care about the details, I’m just expressing a vision here. What do you think?

New Constable Berry sworn in

Interim Precinct 1 Constable Ken Berry wasn’t supposed to be sworn in until January 31, but recent events forced Commissioners Court to move up the timetable.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Friday held an emergency meeting to replace Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia, who resigned after his arrest by federal agents on corruption charges Thursday.


Berry said the biggest challenge he will face may be reorganizing the precinct to improve communication.

“The morale was not necessarily great when I got there, but the morale is good now and it’s going to get better,” Berry said after being sworn in. “I don’t anticipate any problems in managing the office as a result of the investigation.”

When picked for the post, Berry said he had no interest in running for the office this year. On Friday he repeated that he knows little of politics, but said he is “in limbo” about whether to pursue election.

“I might run for office, but I’m not committing to anything,” he said. “I’m enjoying the job.”

Berry had previously said that he had “no interest” in running for a full term, but that he “[hadn’t] really had time to give it any thought”, so who knows. Things can change fast, I suppose. Now he’ll have been able to spend some time on the job before he has to make a decision for the February 1 second filing deadline. At this point, we should not be surprised if he changes his mind.

Abercia arrested

Well, this explains a lot.

Longtime Harris County Precinct One Constable Jack Abercia and two of his staffers were arrested Thursday morning on suspicion of violating several federal laws, including conspiring to accept bribes and using the county office for private gain.

Federal agents arrested Abercia, 78, Chief Lieutenant Weldon Kenneth Wiener, 72, and Office Chief Michael Butler, 56. The trio is scheduled to appear in Houston federal court within about an hour.

A 13-count federal indictment returned on Tuesday and unsealed after the arrests accuses Abercia and Wiener of soliciting and accepting money from companies interested in running background checks on prospective employees through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, which is restricted to law enforcement use.

The indictment charges 11 specific acts of misuse of NCIC in November, but it also alleges the practice had been going on in the constable’s office for a longer period of time.

Abercia and Butler are also charged with bribery in connection with the hiring of an otherwise unqualified deputy constable in return for a $5,000 bribe in July 2010.

We first heard about the FBI looking into Abercia and his office in mid-December. Just before the end of the year, Abercia announced he would not run for re-election, though he had previously filed to do so, citing his health and denying that the investigation had anything to do with it. This week he submitted his resignation, which was to take effect on January 31. I daresay today’s events have cast all of these prior ones in a different light. You can see a copy of the indictment here. It’s not as sexy as some of the other crimes committed by elected officials around here lately, but if true they’re every bit as tawdry and disgraceful. For shame, shame on all three of them. Hair Balls has more.

Abercia resigns, replacement named

Jack Abercia

As we know, longtime Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia announced that he would not be running for re-election. On Monday, he announced that he would resign, effective January 31. On Tuesday, Commissioners Court named a replacement for him to fill out his term.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday appointed Ken Berry, a retired major who served 35 years with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, to fill the seat of Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia, who has announced he will resign at the end of the month.

Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose Precinct 1 largely overlaps with Abercia’s, said he recommended Berry, 63, for the role because of his reputation and management experience at the Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s not often that you have to suddenly make an interim change like this,” Lee said. “Under the circumstances, you try to get the strongest, most mature person you can find who can jump in and run it and anchor it down and carry on business as normal as possible.”


Berry, who retired in 2008, said he will serve as a caretaker and has “no interest at all” in running for the seat in this year’s elections.

Of his appointment, Berry said, “Obviously I’m excited about it, but I haven’t really had time to give it any thought.”

There are currently four candidates for Constable in Precinct 1 – you can see them all on my 2012 Primary Election – Harris County page – all of whom as far as I know filed before Constable Abercia announced that he was withdrawing from the race. Given that there will be a second filing period later this month, Interim Constable Berry or anyone else could then decide to jump in. However, I take Berry at his word that he will not. Congrats to new Constable Berry on the appointment, and best of luck to him in the job and to outgoing Constable Abercia in his retirement.

Constable Abercia to step down

I wish him well.

Longtime Harris County Constable Jack Abercia, citing health concerns, said Wednesday he will not seek re-election next year.

Abercia, 78, has served as Precinct 1 Constable since 1991, when he was appointed to fill the unexpired term of predecessor Walter Rankin.

“I’ve got cancer,” Abercia said. “I’m in treatment now, and I can’t go through a campaign. I’m just running out of steam.”

Abercia submitted a notarized letter to the county Democratic Party headquarters announcing his withdrawal on Tuesday, said the party’s primary director, Demetria Nelson-McNulty.

Credit where it’s due to Campos for catching this before it hit the papers. Abercia’s office has been the subject of scrutiny from the FBI lately, though we don’t know what for. I’m inclined to take him at his word that that was not a driver of his decision to retire – he’s 78 and he has cancer, after all – but we’ll see what happens there.

Greg points out an interesting fact about Constables that I’ll bet most of us didn’t know:

But one tidbit about Constable & JP districts is that they apparently aren’t required to undergo redistricting. Something to do with them being more administrative in function and outside the scope of one-man/one-vote requirements and all that. The result is that Pct 1 has 696,436 people in it while Phil Camus’ Precinct 5 has 1,100,496. The smallest jurisdiction, however, belongs to Victor Trevino’s Precinct 6 with 148,395. Wacky. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Commissioners Court take up the “emergency” in this discrepancy sometime soon.

Now that he mentions it, I do recall hearing some grumbles about the vastly different workloads at different JP courts. I suppose something ought to be done about that, but you’d think the time to tackle it would have been when redoing the County Commissioner precincts. Given everything else going on this year, I don’t know about adding this on to the to do list. I will also confidently predict that if it does find its way onto the Court’s agenda, litigation will follow. Anyone know if this would be subject to preclearance? You’d think it would be, given that the Commissioner precincts were as well, but who knows?

Four Democrats have filed to contest the primary in Abercia’s absence: Grady Castleberry, Alan Rosen, Cindy Vara-Leija and Quincy Whitaker. No Republican has filed.

I’m not terribly familiar with these folks. I suppose since I’m in Constable Precinct 1, I’ll need to figure it out. One more race to add to my list for interviews. This list may yet be incomplete, given the second filing period to come at the end of January. I won’t be surprised to see more names added to it, given Abercia’s announcement.

Investigations all around

There’s a second grand jury looking into Harris County DA Pat Lykos.

Sources close to the investigation said a special prosecutor was appointed last week to look into claims by Shirley Cornelius, a 27-year-veteran of the office, that she was asked to change her time cards to delete accrued compensatory time.

Cornelius would not comment Wednesday on the new development.

In her August 2010 resignation letter, she alleged that a supervisor, acting on orders from the administration, asked her to change a time sheet. Harris County employees do not get overtime. Rather, any overtime they work is added to a pool of time they can take off later.

Cornelius, who became a licensed attorney in 1983, wrote in her resignation letter that she refused to change the official record because it would have been a criminal offense.

Instead, she said, supervisors in the office should be prosecuted for coercion.

Murray Newman wrote about that at the time. Meanwhile, the first grand jury ran into some resistance from other members of Lykos’ office.

Rachel Palmer, a high-ranking assistant Harris County district attorney who oversees the prosecution of hundreds of cases, stunned Houston’s criminal courthouse Thursday by pleading the Fifth Amendment instead of answering questions about evidence gathered by HPD’s beleaguered breath alcohol testing vehicles.

For months, a grand jury has been investigating issues surrounding the Houston Police Department’s BAT vans and possibly the DA’s office’s involvement.

On Thursday, Palmer was told she is not the target of that investigation when she was subpoenaed by the grand jury, according to court records.

She refused to answer questions, citing her constitutional rights, according to court records. It is unusual for a witness who is not being targeted to say that her answers could incriminate her.

Palmer’s actions prompted the grand jury’s special prosecutors to haul her before state District Judge Susan Brown and file a motion to compel her to testify.

Brown said she would hear arguments from both sides in a full hearing Monday. She could compel Palmer to answer specific questions the special prosecutors gave the judge.

Feels like a plot from a David Kelly show, doesn’t it? As far as we know, Lykos has not professed a desire to kiss one of her employees behind the right ear, so she has that going for her. Mark Bennett has more.

Elsewhere in county government, as I noted yesterday, the FBI is taking a look at some personnel files belonging to Constable Jack Abercia. Not clear what that’s about, but any time the words “FBI investigatin” are used in proximity to your name, it’s never a good thing. The Harris County Attorney’s office is also looking at some things Constables do.

First Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke said his office is examining all the nonprofit charitable organizations being run by constables to ensure their activities meet the law. The county attorney is also reviewing a widely used program that allows neighborhood groups and homeowners associations to hire constables for security services. Officials want to check if the time the deputies spend on patrol are consistent with the terms of their security contract.

“This is the backbone of security in much of the city, and in a lot of the unincorporated area,” O’Rourke said. “This is serious stuff, and we are looking into it.”

The third area of the county’s inquiry is the lawful practice of constables pocketing fees for serving notices to vacate, the first step in a eviction ordered by a Justice of the Peace, O’Rourke said.

According to state law, eviction notices may only be delivered when not in conflict with the constable’s official duties, and the deputies cannot be wearing a uniform or driving a county vehicle or county equipment while delivering them.

O’Rourke said each of the eight constables handles serving eviction notices differently. He added that one allegation his office is examining is whether the notices are being served by county employees while on duty.

He said his office will complete a comprehensive report on constable operations by late January.

On top of all that, Constables May Walker and Victor Trevino are being investigated separately over allegations that they had county employees perform political fundraising on county time. Walker’s predecessor had his own troubles as well. Grits has often written that the office of Constable is a political anachronism that ought to be eliminated. Without commenting on the merits of any of these investigations, as I know precious little about them, it’s not hard to see where he’s coming from.