Thursday, July 19, 2018
News Roundup

Judge rejects plea deal in fraud case against former Tampa cop Eric Houston

TAMPA — A judge refused to accept a plea agreement Wednesday in the case of a former Tampa police detective accused of conspiring with an informer to commit tax refund fraud.

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara said the agreement prosecutors negotiated with Eric Houston "does not reflect the seriousness of the case."

Houston, 56, appeared in court to admit to one charge — that he used money a former police informer obtained through stolen-identity tax refund fraud to pay off a credit card debt.

The deal called for the dismissal of 17 other charges, including aggravated identity theft.

Sentencing guidelines put the single offense at the highest level for which a defendant can admit guilt and still get probation rather than incarceration. That, Lazzara said, "would be difficult for me to swallow."

ADMITTING CRIME: Former Tampa detective says he used stolen money to pay debt

He noted that two other defendants in the case — Rita Girven, the police informer, and Tonia Bright, a former Tampa police civilian employee — both received prison sentences.

Lazzara alluded to Houston's position as a police officer. If the allegations are true, he said, they show he "abused his position of public trust in the community."

"I don't make this decision lightly," he said. "I have an independent obligation to ensure that this plea agreement serves the interests of justice."

Lazzara said this is the first time in his nearly 20 years on the federal bench that he has rejected a plea deal. He also took the unusual step of recusing himself from future proceedings because people may now question his impartiality.

The case was reassigned to District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell. Another change of plea hearing was scheduled for Thursday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas B. McCoun, III.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said Houston still intends to plead guilty based on the agreement reached with prosecutors. It will be up to McCoun to recommend to Honeywell whether to accept the agreement.

In court Wednesday, Lazzara asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Riedel why she expected him to accept reduced charges in Houston's case.

Riedel replied that Houston was less culpable than other defendants in the investigation. The judge then asked why prosecutors initially charged Houston with aggravated identity theft — a crime that carries a mandatory prison sentence. Riedel said there was probable cause for the charge.

The judge asked if Houston was expected to testify against his wife, LaJoyce Houston, also a former Tampa police officer who is his co-defendant. She is scheduled to go to trial in May.

Riedel refused to say whether Eric Houston would testify. But she noted that all her supervisors at the U.S. Attorney's Office felt the plea agreement was a fair outcome. There have been negotiations in La Joyce Houston's case, Riedel said, but no offers have yet been accepted.

The prosecutor asked the judge to consider the cases of other former police officers who had committed crimes and received probation.

She mentioned Jeanette Hevel, a former Tampa detective, who last year pleaded guilty to stealing tax refund checks from an evidence room and was sentenced to house arrest and probation.

But the judge didn't want to hear it. Hevel and others are not part of the Houston case, he said.

Houston, his attorney, and an attorney for his wife, all declined comment when contacted Wednesday.

In October 2015, federal prosecutors filed a 14-count indictment against the Houstons, charging them with conspiring with Girven to commit stolen identity tax refund fraud, ultimately enriching themselves by at least $239,117. Six more counts were added later.

According to the indictment, the couple mined Tampa Police Department databases for names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers. The government says they passed information to Girven, who has pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

Comments
Scattered afternoon showers to persist into the weekend across Tampa Bay

Scattered afternoon showers to persist into the weekend across Tampa Bay

A strong southwestern flow continues to drag scattered showers and thunderstorms from the Gulf. As the weekend approaches, folks around Tampa Bay can expect to see a familiar pattern: morning showers near the coast and, by the afternoon, stronger and...
Updated: 9 minutes ago
Pregnant Disney dancer claims gender bias in lawsuit

Pregnant Disney dancer claims gender bias in lawsuit

ORLANDO — A former aerial dancer at Walt Disney World has sued the resort alleging gender discrimination, saying she was fired after she became pregnant with twins and went on an 11-month leave. Krista Crowder filed the lawsuit in state court in Orla...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Search continues for missing diver at Eagle’s Nest in Hernando

Search continues for missing diver at Eagle’s Nest in Hernando

WEEKI WACHEE — Rescue crews will continue to search Thursday morning for a diver who failed to resurface at a dangerous cave in Hernando County.The unidentified diver was free-diving at Eagle’s Nest, meaning he was not carrying oxygen, sometime befor...
Updated: 1 hour ago
At Tampa camp, kids are on their toes, early and often

At Tampa camp, kids are on their toes, early and often

Eleven-year-old Hector Jain hasn’t been whiling away his summer.Every day, for five weeks, he and 175 other kids from across the world have been participating in the Next Generation Ballet Summer Intensive camp at the Straz Center for Performing Arts...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Epilogue: ‘Captain Dan’ Lunin, a broadcasting ‘genius’ in Tampa Bay

Epilogue: ‘Captain Dan’ Lunin, a broadcasting ‘genius’ in Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURG — He was known as "Captain Dan" and the "Eye in the Sky" for delivering his daily traffic reports from the two-seat plane he flew over Tampa Bay’s clogged interstates.Daniel Lunin’s real legacy, though, was built on the ground.He was a...
Updated: 1 hour ago
The Daystarter: Jeff Greene’s special money offer at Democratic debate; diver missing at dangerous Hernando cave; Publix, Kahwa change the coffee game

The Daystarter: Jeff Greene’s special money offer at Democratic debate; diver missing at dangerous Hernando cave; Publix, Kahwa change the coffee game

Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what to know today.• Coastal showers will form this morning before moving inland, according to the National Weather Service. Expect highs to be in the upper 80s to low 90s.• As you head out for your morni...
Updated: 2 hours ago
SEC media days: Why I’m picking Alabama and Georgia to meet again

SEC media days: Why I’m picking Alabama and Georgia to meet again

ATLANTA — Continuing my annual tradition of idiocy, here are my predicted SEC football standings for the fall. I'll revisit them after the season, so I can laugh at myself before anyone else can laugh at me.SEC West1.   ...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Romano: One last shot at saving St. Pete Pier art

Romano: One last shot at saving St. Pete Pier art

(Holds a painting against a wall.)Does it look good here?(Moves it lower.)Okay, how about it here?(Moves it to the left.)Are you sure you want this?• • •Now try that with 250,000 amateur critics.And a piece of art that stretches more than 200 feet.Ye...
Published: 07/19/18
Joe Henderson:  School custodians doubling as soldiers? Our Founding Fathers are reeling.

Joe Henderson: School custodians doubling as soldiers? Our Founding Fathers are reeling.

If you just dropped in from another planet and needed to learn about Florida’s insidious gun problem, all you had to do was check out the front of Wednesday’s local section of the Tampa Bay Times. In the center was a story about a school safety drill...
Published: 07/19/18
Hernando County leaders may help School Board pay for campus security

Hernando County leaders may help School Board pay for campus security

BROOKSVILLE — With an Oct. 1 deadline looming for the Hernando County School Board to find a way to pay for school security once its agreement with the County Commission expires, leaders from both governments will consider extending the partnership.B...
Published: 07/19/18