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.
FBI agents have interviewed many of the motorists who were stopped in Tenaha, including some who were given leniency. And several Shelby County officials have testified before a grand jury in Tyler.
Malcolm Bales, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, said limited resources have put the district attorney at a disadvantage in prosecuting major crimes. But he acknowledged that several matters were mishandled, particularly the one that resulted in probation for the man with 15 kilos of cocaine.
That case "was extraordinary enough for me to take it on and re-prosecute the guy," said Bales, who was an assistant U.S. attorney based in Lufkin at the time.
Gregory Fuller of Nashville, Tenn., is now serving more than 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
Fuller was on parole for selling cocaine in Tennessee when he was stopped for speeding in 2006 in Tenaha. A search of his car turned up the drugs with a potential street value of more than $1 million. The offense carried a sentence of 15 to 99 years in prison.
But just four days after his arrest, Fuller cut a deal allowing him to pay a $10,000 fine and receive three years' probation with deferred adjudication. On the day the documents were signed, he also agreed to forfeit $81,300 to the district attorney's office.
Fuller "walked out of there thinking he was the luckiest man on the planet," said Goldsmith, his attorney.
Less than two months later, federal authorities initiated their case under the principle of dual sovereignty, which permits the federal government to prosecute an offense even if it's been dealt with in state court.Comment on this story
"That incident demanded a full investigation, or at least an attempt to find out where Fuller got the narcotics and where they were going," Bales said.
The case of Angela Neveins, a Houston woman stopped in 2006, followed a similar pattern. She was charged with money laundering after her gift-wrapped packages were found to contain $626,000. But the charge was dismissed two days later when she signed a waiver agreeing to forfeit the cash.
Neveins told her attorney that the money wasn't hers, and she quickly agreed to give it up in exchange for her freedom.
"Once she heard the monkey would be off her back," said Houston attorney Jim Dyer, "she readily thought that was the way to go."