Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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

Former Tampa Police officers Eric Houston and his wife LaJoyce Houston enter federal court in Tampa in October 2015. They were indicted on charges involving stolen identity and tax refund fraud. [Times file (2015)]

Former Tampa Police officers Eric Houston and his wife LaJoyce Houston enter federal court in Tampa in October 2015. They were indicted on charges involving stolen identity and tax refund fraud. [Times file (2015)]

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.

Judge rejects plea deal in fraud case against former Tampa cop Eric Houston 03/22/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 22, 2017 2:09pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Water leak slows traffic in Westshore area

    Public Safety

    TAMPA –– A broken water main has closed the westbound lane of West Cypress Street between North Westshore Boulevard and North Ward Street. The city estimates the repairs will be completed by 7 a.m. on Sunday.

  2. Fox renewed O'Reilly contract despite knowing of allegations


    NEW YORK (AP) — The Fox News Channel says the company knew a news analyst planned to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill O'Reilly when it renewed the popular personality's contract in February.

    Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly appears on the Fox News show, "The O'Reilly Factor," in New York. O'Reilly has lost his job at Fox News Channel in April following reports that several women had been paid millions of dollars to keep quiet about harassment allegations. [Associated Press file]
  3. Conviction overturned 30 years later in neo-Nazi murder case


    TAMPA — A judge on Friday overturned the murder conviction of Dean McKee now that new evidence has raised doubt about McKee's guilt in a Tampa slaying that occurred nearly three decades ago when he was 16.

    In 1987, a St. Petersburg Times reporter interviewed Dean McKee for a story about young skinheads in Tampa. [Times | 1987]
  4. Experts have some theories on who's carrying out Seminole Heights killings


    The words serial killer tend to conjure an image of a middle-aged white man, likely a loner. He stabs or chokes or strangles, murdering up close for the thrill, straight out of central casting.

    A memorial was set up where Anthony Naiboa, 20, was found shot to death in Seminole Heights. Some experts who have reviewed information in the case say that whoever is behind the three Seminole Heights killings may live in the area. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
  5. Late fumble, field goal send Florida State to another loss


    TALLAHASSEE — Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher didn't have an explanation for the turning point in Saturday's 31-28 last-second loss to Louisville.

    Louisville's Lamar Jackson gets past Florida State's Matthew Thomas to score in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Tallahassee Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) FLSC102