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."
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.