Looking at the sheriff's surveillance squad

May 20, 2008 10:05:49 PM PDT
We've learned a Harris County grand jury is investigating the Harris County Sheriffs Department and its secret surveillance. 13 Undercover first reported last week two brothers who sued the sheriff for civil rights violations were put under surveillance just days before their case went to trial. And now, it's a brewing problem for the sheriff. Did lawmen break the law, and why are they refusing to answer growing questions about who they watch, and why?

Months ago, we began asking question about the sheriff's secret intelligence squad. And now, we've uncovered evidence surveillance is not being documented and the squad works criminal cases for campaign donors of the sheriff.

It's no secret anymore. The sheriff's department spied on the two brothers suing Sheriff Tommy Thomas for civil rights violations.

"It's come out in the open. It's been exposed," said Sean Ibarra. "Something needs to be done about it."

A department spokesman claims the surveillance by the investigative support unit lasted just five or six hours over three days. But lawmakers are now crying foul.

"To me, it smacks of Gestapo tactics, to be honest with you," said state Senator Rodney Ellis.

So where is the record of the surveillance?

"There must have been a record of the surveillance of the Ibarras or we wouldn't be talking about it," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

If that's true, is the sheriffs office keeping it from the public now in violation of state law? It's not in documents detailing the squad's activity on completed cases for the last two years turned over to Channel 13, not any surveillance on the Ibarra brothers or anyone else.

"I would assume that it is done and it is documented for the sheriff, who runs the department," said Emmett. "I would be concerned if that's not the case."

The six-member intelligence unit costs taxpayers $332,000 a year in salary alone. Add to that the $126,000 surveillance van with sophisticated surveillance equipment we bought for them. We've asked for records detailing its use. And there aren't any.

"Taxpayers are paying a secret group, call it what you want, spying and survielling on Houstonians and people who live in Harris County," said state Senator Mario Gallegos. "It's wrong."

Documents detailing only a handful of completed on-duty investigations have been released. And in three, law enforcement work by the sheriff's secret squad is being done for companies whose executives are campaign contributors of Sheriff Thomas.

In January '07, a squad member is sent to Gallery Furniture because an employee reported his tire was slashed by another employee. The result -- a misdemeanor charge.

Two detectives spent weeks investigating the alleged unauthorized use of a company credit card by an employee at Rinker, Inc. The manager, Claire Branch, is a contributor and friend of the sheriff, but told us the relationship didn't get him the attention of the secret squad.

"I would assume that there is a record of everything that's done over there," said Emmett.

But according to the records turned over, most of the last two years is simply unaccounted for. The documents were released in the wake of Deputy Craig Miller's death. He was the member of the ISU unit killed in that tragic wreck on the Katy Freeway back in March. Miller's blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit.

The sheriff's office claimed he was unexpectedly called in to do a surveillance on a capital murder case. Yet they refused to tell us what Deputy Miller was doing during his shift that day, telling us, "Out of respect for the family, the sheriff's office wishes not to unnecessarily prolong public discussion of this matter."

Sheriff Thomas won't talk with us and won't tell us if any emails the department tried to illegally destroy involve the Ibarras or any other surveillance activities. Since a court order, we've reviewed 38,000 emails from the command staff.

Sgt. Bruce Carr is the commander of the squad. Of his emails reviewed by 13 Undercover, details of 21 are still being withheld by the department. We were told Major Jorge authorized the surveillance. Ten of his emails are also being withheld from public scrutiny.

"There are a lot of people who go around and think there are black helicopters in the sky, but the reality may be there are no black helicopters, but there sure are sheriff's SUVs following people," said State Senator Garnet Coleman.

Few would question the need for undercover cops to do surveillance on suspected criminals. But who's the sheriff's office been following and what equipment have they been using to do it and, most importantly, why?

Late Tuesday, Eyewitness News asked a judge for an emergency hearing because of our concerns the sheriffs office is withholding emails it shouldn't, including what may be the only evidence of the Ibarra surveillance.

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