10/20/2008Texas: Officials Use Toll Fund For Meals, Bonuses, Decorating
Investigation finds Harris County, Texas Attorney uses toll road fine slush fund to throw parties and redecorate.
The Harris County, Texas Attorney's Office is using funds from toll road fines to bankroll lavish dinners and provide salary bonuses to well-paid employees. So far, a total of $2 million has been generated from a $1 fee assessed to Harris County motorists accused of not paying a toll. The fee is part of the $34 fine levied for each alleged instance of toll skipping. Most pay the fine even if they have been wrongly accused due to faulty equipment. State lawmakers intended the $1 fee to cover the administrative expenses of the county attorney for handling the fines.
"What I like about toll road fund is it's toll road violator dollars," Harris County Attorney Mike Stafford told KTRK television. "It's not tax dollars."
An investigative report by KTRK determined that the money is actually being spent on items not directly related to the toll road. For example, Stafford used the fund to throw a Christmas party at Pizzinis, an Italian restaurant, at a cost of $5625. A total of $17,000 in motorist fees was spent on Italian food in a single year. Another $100,000 went to pay bonuses to employees who already make as much as $225,000 a year.
Although county motorists called to jury duty and most public employees are forced to pay up to $5.50 a day to park near the courthouse, Stafford used $196,000 from the tolling fund to ensure his staff could always park in county lots for free.
The toll road fund was also used to pay $122,599 for office remodeling expenses under a no-bid contract with Hermes Commercial Contractors. Leroy Hermes is Stafford's campaign committee chairman.