Was a generous gift against the law?

January 30, 2009 3:54:50 PM PST
It was a gracious gift to those who risk their lives to serve and protect, but now after thousands of dollars were passed out to deputies, county officials are trying to figure out if this kind act was against the law. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

The Ft. Bend County Sheriff says the money came from a donor who wanted to remain anonymous, as a show of support for law enforcement. But now, county leaders are trying to figure out if that money should have been passed out in the first place.

The county attorney's office is investigating and the district attorney will also be looking at what happened and whether or not deputies can legally accept the generous donation they've been given.

Fort Bend sheriff's deputy Charlie Scott spends his days on patrol, protecting the public. Never before, he says, has he seen a gesture of gratitude like he and other deputies received Thursday.

"It was a check for a thousand dollars," he said.

All patrol deputies and detectives were called into a meeting at the sheriff's office yesterday afternoon, where the sheriff handed them the thousand dollar cashier's checks.

Sheriff Milton Wright says he is the only one who knows who donated what totaled $220,000. He says the person wanted their identity and the organization they are with to remain anonymous.

"Nobody is to know where it come from," said Wright.

The sheriff says the donor told him the money was meant to recognize the hard work and professionalism of his deputies. However, KTRK's legal analyst Joel Androphy says the law doesn't allow a public servant to accept such money because there could be an appearance that someone was trying to buy influence or a favor from that officer.

"The law says pretty clearly public servants can't accept gifts," said Androphy.

The Texas penal code states in fact that it can be a class (a) misdemeanor to accept a benefit, "...from a person the public servant knows to be subject to regulation, inspection, or investigation by the public servant or his agency."

Sheriff Wright argues that the law doesn't apply because the deputies don't know the donor. If it's anonymous, he says there's no way there could be "quid pro quo" for the gifts.

"It's a gift. You get Christmas gifts," said Wright. "This doesn't prohibit people from giving my deputies a Christmas gift or a birthday gift or a gift of good will."

County Judge Bob Hebert has asked the county attorney to investigate the matter. He says the law also requires commissioners court to approve any gifts given before they are handed out.

"That step wasn't taken here," said Ft. Bend County Judge Bob Hebert. "Why it wasn't, I don't know."

The sheriff insists he's done nothing wrong. He says he did not run this by the county attorney or any other attorneys because he doesn't see a problem with it. The county attorney's office is now investigating.

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