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APNewsBreak: Texas DA offered leniency for cash

By Danny Robbins

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 25 2011 12:40 p.m. MDT

In this Sept. 1, 2011 photo, traffic moves along U.S. Highway 59, a well-known drug-trafficking route through Tenaha,Texas. The federal government is investigating the local district attorney's system of allowing suspected drug runners and money launderers to receive extremely light sentences, or even escape criminal charges altogether, if they forfeited their cash to the prosecutor’s office.

Danny Robbins, Associated Press

CENTER, Texas — The district attorney in a Texas county with a well-known drug-trafficking route repeatedly allowed suspected drug runners and money launderers to receive light sentences — or escape criminal charges altogether — if they forfeited their cash to prosecutors.

As a result, authorities collected more than $800,000 in less than a year using a practice that essentially let suspects buy their way out of allegations that, if proven, would probably have resulted in prison sentences.

"They were looking out for the treasury of their county instead of doing the job of protecting society," said R. Christopher Goldsmith, a Houston attorney who represented one of the defendants.

The system engineered by Shelby County District Attorney Lynda Kaye Russell is now one focus of a federal criminal investigation that is also reviewing whether Russell and other law enforcement officials targeted black motorists for traffic stops.

Interviews, court records and other documents reviewed by The Associated Press show numerous examples of suspects who went unpunished or got unusually light sentences after turning over tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The money from those and other defendants increased the DA's forfeiture account by more than two hundredfold and helped ease a tight budget. The county's former auditor has testified that at least a portion of it was spent on campaign materials, parades, holiday decorations, food, flowers, gifts and charitable contributions.

In one instance, a man accused of transporting 15 kilos of cocaine and more than $80,000 in cash got probation after forfeiting the money to the district attorney. When the Justice Department learned about the deal, federal officials regarded it as so outlandish that they took the rare step of building their own case.

In another case, a woman caught with more than $620,000 stuffed into Christmas presents walked away after reaching a similar agreement.

Russell, who has been district attorney in the county on the Texas-Louisiana border since 1999, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. She announced in June that she was resigning, effective at the end of the year, to care for her sick mother.

Law enforcement agencies across the country often seize money or property believed linked to criminal activity. If they can prove the link in civil court, authorities can take possession of it permanently. But it's highly unusual to make deals that provide suspects with freedom or leniency if they agree to forfeit their cash.

The Shelby County cases arose from traffic stops on U.S. Highway 59, which runs from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada and is one of the nation's most notorious drug corridors.

Russell and other county law enforcement officials have been under investigation by the Department of Justice's civil-rights division since 2008, when they were named defendants in a class-action lawsuit stemming from traffic stops in the small town of Tenaha.

The lawsuit contends that a drug-enforcement program established by the town in 2006 was actually a scheme to threaten innocent motorists, most of them black, with money laundering charges if they didn't forfeit their cash.

In the program's first year, the DA's office and the law enforcement agencies that made the stops divvied up nearly $1 million in forfeited cash. That was a spectacular spike in income: Forfeitures had produced less than $2,000 the year before, according to reports filed with the Texas attorney general's office.

The class-action lawsuit has received national media attention, but the fact that the forfeiture deals were also made with people who fit the profile of "mules" transporting drugs or drug money is neither addressed by the complaint nor widely known outside Shelby County, about 175 miles northeast of Houston.

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