HOUSTON – While the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Motorcycle Unit is supposed to enforce traffic laws and work major crash investigations, the 11 News I-Team discovered Sheriff Adrian Garcia has been yanking deputies off of those regular duties, to give special treatment to a select few.
The I-Team discovered that, on at least three occasions since June, Garcia instructed motorcycle deputies to conduct funeral escorts on taxpayers’ dime, but not for all taxpayers, only a select few chosen by the Sheriff himself.
The latest happened Sept. 15, when four deputies led a procession from a funeral home in southeast Houston to a cemetery on the city’s far north side, each spending two hours on the special assignment.
"What it is, frankly, it's an absolute waste of taxpayers’ money," said Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack.
“Normally funeral escorts are paid for by the family that's having the funeral," added Radack, who is a retired police officer. "If you're pulling police officers from patrol to have them in an escort as a favor, then obviously that's certainly a misuse of county resources."
A few days earlier, on Sept. 10, the story was the same — another private funeral, another police escort at the public’s expense, with another four motorcycle deputies yanked for a couple of hours from their regular duties.
But the price to taxpayers was even bigger at a funeral on June 26. That’s when 11 News I-Team cameras counted a total of six motorcycle units on hand for a police escort. And this time it was a Saturday, so the deputies were on the taxpayers' overtime dime, each submitting eight hours for a total of 48 overtime hours.
During an on-camera interview, Garcia seemed to have a tough time answering a very simple question:
11 News: “Can you look the viewer in the eye and say, ‘I'm OK with spending your money this way?'”
Sheriff Garcia: “It is a rare occasion that it has occurred.”
11 News: “Can you answer the question sheriff?”
Sheriff Garcia: “It is a rare occasion that it has occurred."
11 News: “So you're comfortable that this is the best way to spend the taxpayers' money, that funds your salary?
Sheriff Garcia: “It is not the entire budget of the sheriff's office, it is a fraction."
The sheriff never answered the question directly, and when we asked how he chose those particular funerals, he claimed he couldn't remember, only to say they were for civic leaders, and a World War Two veteran.
"They're people who've obviously given so much to our community and it was, it just felt like the right thing to do," Garcia said.
The sheriff also said it's his discretion. A department policy that pre-dates Garcia forbids funeral escorts other than for deputies, their spouses or children. But exceptions are allowed, if approved by the Sheriff himself.
"If you have a policy and you've got all of these holes in it, is it really a policy?" questioned Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole.
Eversole said county resources should only be used for official county business, but the reality is, he can’t take any official action.
"Can I do anything about him breaking his own policy? No," Eversole said.
The policy also allows the sheriff to approve exceptions for so-called convenience escorts, which are otherwise prohibited.
So what's a convenience escort? It is sending deputies to an executive jet hangar at Hobby airport to meet a celebrity. For example, on Oct. 22, three motorcycle units escorted famous TV personality Barbara Walters from the airport to a Galleria-area hotel in rush-hour traffic, where she spoke at the annual Houston Crime Stoppers dinner.
"At this point I'm hoping you're kidding with me,” said Commissioner Radack.
"It's outrageous, outrageous waste of taxpayers’ money," Radack said, especially since Sheriff Garcia has pleaded his case to Harris County Commissioners Court, that he doesn’t have enough manpower to go around.
Sheriff Garcia: "They were doing it in partnership for Houston Crime stoppers.”
11 News: “It's a celebrity.”
Sheriff Garcia: “They were doing it for Houston Crime Stoppers.”
11 News: “She's not a head of state, she's not the president, she's not the Pope, she's a celebrity Sheriff, let's face it.”
Sheriff Garcia: “Houston Crime Stoppers was having this event, it was in support of the event."
Other fiscal stewards of your tax dollars said they're not bothered by it all.
"I don't want to micromanage the sheriff's department," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.
"For the sheriff to provide motorcycle escorts, I think is wholly appropriate, as long as it's not carried away," Emmett said.
In a statement, Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia added "there appears to be no violation of law or policy" and "I will not attempt to second-guess every action taken by the sheriff."
But if you're thinking all the scrutiny might persuade the sheriff to second guess his own actions, think again.
More taxpayer funded motorcycle escorts might be on the road soon.
"The policy allows me to have the discretion, and I'll continue to exercise that discretion as limited as I have," Garcia said.
The sheriff also said that during an escort, deputies are available to be pulled off the procession and dispatched to an emergency if needed.
11 News chose not to name the deceased individuals out of respect for their families.