TAMPA — At the height of his career, Eric Houston was a respected homicide detective, one who solved murders that were deemed unsolvable. Yet, he somehow wasn’t inquisitive enough to notice that his household was benefiting from tax refund fraud.
His attorney argued as much Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven, who found it hard to believe.
"I don’t know how I’m supposed to accept that he’s that smart and that ignorant simultaneously," the judge said.
Scriven sentenced Houston to six months in federal prison and ordered him to pay $39,000 in restitution, having accepted his guilty plea to a charge of receiving stolen government property.
Houston and his wife, LaJoyce, who was a sergeant with the Tampa Police Department, were accused in 2015 of mining police databases for people’s personal information. Prosecutors said they then gave the information to Rita Girven, a police informer, who used it to file fraudulent tax returns. Girven used the refund money, in part, to pay the Houstons’ bills.
But Eric Houston said he knew nothing about the fraud, and, in the end, the prosecution pinned little on him. The charge to which he pleaded guilty stemmed from a Home Depot credit card in his name, which Girven paid off with tax fraud money.
"I just want to tell the court I take full responsibility for the charge brought against me and I’m sorry for everything that occurred," Houston said.
He told the judge he hadn’t realized that his family had financial problems. His wife handled most of their money, he said. He didn’t have time because he was consumed with his duties investigating homicides.
Scriven remained skeptical. She said she wasn’t convinced he was accepting responsibility.
She noted that the federal government’s sentencing memorandum, which focused more on the activities of LaJoyce Houston and Rita Girven, was less accusatory toward Eric Houston.
"I’m not sure who the government represents at this hearing because their sentencing memo seems like they represent Eric Houston," the judge said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Riedel said prosecutors secured a guilty plea to the only charge they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
She said most of the information that Girven used to file fraudulent returns came from "death websites," an apparent reference to online genealogy material. Some of it came from a former Tampa police civilian employee, Tonia Bright, who was also convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.
Interim Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan told the judge how the case had affected the department. He brought Houston’s police badge, which he noted was worn and tarnished.
"It’s a blemish on the Tampa Police Department, and it’s a blemish on law enforcement," he said.
Houston’s attorney, Wade Whidden, objected to the chief’s testimony because he was not a victim in the case.
"There is nothing whatsoever that says Eric Houston abused his position of trust with TPD," Whidden said.
Whidden argued for a probation sentence. He said Houston has already paid a heavy price. Since he was fired in 2014, the decorated lawman who wanted a career as a cop all his life has been unable to find work.
"He’ll probably be relegated to an hourly wage at a place like, ironically, Home Depot," Whidden said.
Houston is also likely to lose his pension, worth $5,923 a month. Based on his life expectancy, that could amount to more than $1 million.
LaJoyce Houston, who sat behind her husband at the hearing, is scheduled to be sentenced next month. Prosecutors said they intend to seek a harsher penalty in her case.
Girven is serving a 12-year prison sentence.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.