Bombshell in probe of sheriff's office

May 21, 2008 8:50:12 PM PDT
It may be just an email, but tonight, only 13 Undercover has it. It could spell new trouble for the sheriff and his secret squad of detectives, who spied on two brothers suing the sheriff's office for civil rights violations. The Ibarra brothers' story is quickly becoming quicksand for Sheriff Tommy Thomas. First, his department loses a big civil rights lawsuit, costing taxpayers millions. The brothers claimed they were roughed up for videotaping a drug raid at their neighbor's house. Then, we learn the sheriff's office spied on the brothers just weeks before the trial.

"What they always wanted, which was a sense for things to change in this county, and now we're finding out they've gotten worse," said Lloyd Kelley, attorney for the Ibarra brothers.

Our surveillance story launched a criminal investigation. Now, we discovered the only documentation of the controversial surveillance was in one of those emails the sheriff tried to destroy months ago, if not for a lawsuit to stop him by 13 Undercover.

We now have that email from December 16, 2007 from the secret squad's commander. It doesn't talk about the alleged surveillance of the Ibarra brothers for five or six hours over three days, but about the "many days of surveillance of the Ibarra house," surveillance that apparently included accessing police computers to check warrants and police calls to the house over a two and a half year period.

It concludes "no suspicious activity" was observed.

[READ FULL EMAIL]

"The apparent existence of this email regarding the Ibarra brothers surveillance which has never been disclosed is particularly troubling," said Channel 13 attorney John Edwards.

And that's because high ranking sheriff's officials claimed in our court trial that any email detailing investigations had been saved in other forms. That's so defendants wouldn't have to worry about destroyed evidence.

"Mr. Dolcefino was supposedly given all the completed investigation files regarding this unit months ago," said Edwards.

And now the Ibarra surveillance will likely prompt a new civil rights lawsuit, allegations of perjury . Ibarras' lawyer claims Major Juan Jorge testified in the civil trial he had no involvement in the Ibarra case for years. The email shows he was involved in the surveillance weeks before trial.

"Either he lied under oath in this trail, the Ibarra case or he is the fall guy and he's saying, 'Yeah, I ordered this up'," said Kelley.

Whatever really happened, it's clear the Ibarra case is far from over and the credibility of the sheriff's office is now front and center. Sheriff Tommy Thomas won't face reporters to explain any of it.

Response from the sheriff's department

We've been asking Sheriff Thomas to answer questions about the Ibarra surveillance for more than a week now, but he won't. So we spoke with the next best thing. His second in command talks about the surveillance and the secret squad that conducted it.

A high-ranking sheriff's official admits if it wasn't for that email, you may have never known about the Ibarras' surveillance. And that's not all the department is saying.

"Is this the sheriff's goon squad?" we asked Chief Deputy Danny Billingsley with the Harris County Sheriff's Department.

"We have no goon squad," he answered.

"You don't follow the sheriff's enemies?"

"We don't follow the sheriff's enemies," he answered.

But Erik and Sean Ibarra were adversaries, suing the sheriff's office among others last year when they were watched by criminal investigators from a secret sheriff's office squad. No one knew about the surveillance until last week. Few knew about the squad and there are close to no records detailing their activities for years.

"Where are the records?" we asked.

"There are no records that detail the use of the van or the use of the surveillance equipment," said Billingsley.

"Why not?"

"Oversight on my part," he said.

The Investigative Support Unit, as it's officially called, is made up of 5 investigators and a specially equipped van decked out with surveillance equipment.

"Basically if you got in the van right now, what you'd find would be radios, computers, cameras, binoculars, scopes, that sort of thing," said Billingsley.

Billingsley sat in the seat we were hoping the sheriff would fill.

"How come he doesn't want to sit down and set the record straight or at least defend himself when you have all these things out there?" we asked.

"I think there's a level of mistrust that has developed," answered Billingsley. "Whether it's right or wrong, it's there."

We wanted him to explain why Harris County citizens who are not the subject of criminal investigations are spied on.

"Was it to find dirt on them?" we asked.

"I guess you could say if they saw dirt, that could be it," he answered.

Chief Billinsgley says all it takes is for a supervisor to request surveillance. It's used in many murder cases. The Ibarras were the first for a civil lawsuit. The email is the only record they were the targets of the secret squad.

"Was it because you didn't want the public to know what you were doing?" we asked him.

"No, not at all," he answered.

"How can there be such arrogance of power to think somebody wouldn't have to keep records?" asked state Senator Rodney Ellis.

Senator Ellis is calling for an investigation of the sheriff's office.

"It smacks of Gestapo tactics to me," he said.

He wants a historical report of who has been investigated, why and what was learned.

"Can you comply with that?" we asked Billingsley.

"I can't comply with it in as much as I don't have a record of all that," he answered.

But our questions have prompted change.

"I think that I was remiss in not requiring greater reporting and not auditing that," said Billingsley. "I accept responsibility for that. I see that as a problem. It's been addressed. You come back in a month and I'll show you records."

On Tuesday, Chief Billingsley ordered the squad to start documenting. Still, it's been around for years. The public may never know who's been watched and why.

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