Toll Road fines feed Harris County Attorney's office slush fund
By Wayne Dolcefino
HOUSTON -- Think Harris County toll road fines are outrageous? Wait till you hear how the county attorney is spending some of your money.
That's $2 million of your money. We thought you should know how the county attorney is spending it. We all know what happens when you don't pay a toll. How fifty cents becomes 34.50?
"I think they're outrageous," said toll road customer Jimmy Deal. "Ridiculous."
Notice on the bill there's a $1 fee that goes directly to the Harris County Attorney from every unpaid toll.
"I agree with you. It's public money," said Harris County attorney Mike Stafford.
"Does it say on there what it goes for?" asked toll road customer T.J. Swift.
State law only says "the fund shall be at the sole discretion of the county attorney and may be used only to defray the salaries and expenses of the attorney's office."
"It doesn't say it's only to be used for toll road efforts," Stafford said.
In fact, when we examined the fund, we couldn't find a single penny used for toll road business.
"What I like about toll road fund is its toll road violator dollars," Stafford said. "It's not tax dollars."
So where is the money going?
"This is pure and simple a county attorney office slush fund," said tax watchdog Bob Lemer.
Coconut shrimp anyone? That's part of the menu for the county attorney's office Christmas party.
Yes. Your toll fines paid for the catering bills from the east side Italian eatery Pizzinis. One party cost $5,625.
That's money from the fines of 5,600 trips through the toll booth.
"That's pretty disappointing and they haven't invited me to the party," said toll road customer JJ Cannon.
In one year, they used more than $17,000 in toll fines on Italian food.
"This is just a totally improper use of taxpayer money," Lemer said.
"It improves morale of the office, makes the office a better place to work at no cost to taxpayers," Stafford said.
"Those are taxpayers sitting in those cars going through those toll road booths," Lemer said.
Oh, we forgot to add the Star Pizza parties.
"So that's where my money is going and I'm not invited. That's a bad deal," Deal said.
Next time you get called for jury duty you'll have to pay $5.50 for parking a day. Too bad you don't have control of that toll road fund.
The county attorney's office has used $196,000 so they can all park for free, even though most county employees have to pay their own way.
Sheriff's deputies pay three bucks to park in another lot every day.
"Anytime I can use the fund instead of tax dollars I'm going do it," Stafford said.
More than two million dollars has gone into the public toll road fund. Nearly $100,000 has gone to provide extra pay to selected employees.
"There were people who were unable to get a raise because of the salary cap and they deserved it," Stafford said.
Oh, by the way, the toll road fund could have been used to pay the salaries of the county lawyers who are working with the toll road. Two lawyers were paid $225,000 a year.
"I think that's an idea worth considering," Stafford said.
Instead of coconut shrimp.
We began examining the toll road fund as we investigated the county attorney's relationship to one of his employees. Tuesday our hidden cameras go into action.
© 2008 ABC Inc., KTRK-TV/DT: www.abclocal.go.com
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