Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Tampa police sergeant fired, charged with welfare fraud

TAMPA — Tampa police detectives eavesdropping on a jail inmate's phone calls heard a voice they did not expect:

Their own agency's Sgt. La Joyce Houston talking to an inmate named Rita Girven, the biological mother of a girl Houston had adopted years ago.

The two women conspired to let Houston use Girven's food stamps, doled out on an electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, card, police say. On Sept. 10, Houston used it to buy $365 in groceries at a Gibsonton Walmart.

On Thursday, police fired, then arrested 47-year-old Houston on two charges of food stamp fraud and one charge of grand theft.

The 16-year agency veteran made $91,400 a year. By 3 p.m. Thursday, she was sitting in the Orient Road Jail, held in lieu of $6,000 bail.

If convicted, she might forfeit her pension, which is about $46,000 a year, officials said.

Houston is married to Tampa police detective Eric Houston, a respected homicide investigator, who went to work Thursday as usual. Police Chief Jane Castor said the agency does not believe he was involved with — or knew about — any fraud. Nonetheless, the agency plans to conduct an "exhaustive" internal investigation, she said.

La Joyce Houston's is the department's third public firing in two weeks. On Sept. 27, the agency fired and arrested a detective accused of stealing from the evidence room. They also fired Sgt. Ray Fernandez, the DUI supervisor involved in what appears to have been the setup of a local lawyer. Fernandez has not been charged.

Though the trio's dismissals happened in quick succession, Castor said officers like them make up a small part of the agency, which employs just under 1,000 sworn officers.

"It's very rare for one of our officers to violate policies, much less the law," Castor said.

Detectives first learned of Houston's phone conversations on Aug. 8, as they secretly listened to Girven's calls as part of a separate investigation, Castor said. Girven was booked into jail on Aug. 8 on charges of petty theft and violation of probation. She has a long criminal record with 49 felony charges and 14 convictions, police say. Most are related to theft and fraud.

Over nine weeks, Houston and Girven spoke at least 35 times, and during one of the calls, Girven told the sergeant where she could find Girven's EBT card, police say. In addition to using it at Walmart, police say Houston also gave it to one of her family members to use in exchange for 50 cents for every dollar spent.

Houston put the proceeds into Girven's jail canteen account, police say.

Girven was charged with welfare fraud in connection with this case, police say.

Another problem: Girven's EBT card was in the name of her 12-year-old son, police say. That is not allowed because Girven neither had custody of the boy nor provided him any financial support.

Houston was told of her firing Thursday morning at the office of her attorney, Daniel J. Fernandez. Reached in the afternoon, Fernandez said he was not ready to talk case specifics — only about his client in general.

Houston supervised night-shift patrol officers in east Tampa, Ybor City and the Port of Tampa and had no previous disciplinary issues in her file, police say. While moving up the ranks at the Tampa Police Department, she got a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's in education, her attorney said.

She married detective Eric Houston in 2007, and in 2009 the two legally adopted the young girl that Houston had cared for since infancy. The girl is now 9.

On Thursday, no one had an answer for why. Why would Houston steal several hundred dollars and risk her good-paying job and pension?

Chief Castor said Houston gave no statement and remained stoic as she was told of her firing.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at or (813) 226-3433.

Tampa police sergeant fired, charged with welfare fraud 10/10/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 10, 2013 10:57pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Deputies find unidentified decomposing body in Dunedin canal

    Public Safety

    DUNEDIN — Pinellas County sheriff's deputies found an unidentified male body floating in a Dunedin canal Monday afternoon, the Sheriff's Office said.

  2. Rays acquire slick-fielding shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria from Marlins

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Chaim Bloom said the Rays weren't necessarily in the market for a shortstop. The team has a number of those. But when the Marlins recently began shopping Adeiny Hechavarria, well, that was too much to pass up.

    Adeiny Hechavarria has emerged as one of baseball’s top defensive shortstops in the past three seasons with the Marlins.
  3. Lightning journal: Forward Yanni Gourde agrees to two-year deal

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — Just three years ago, Yanni Gourde was fighting to stay in pro hockey.

    Tampa Bay Lightning center Yanni Gourde celebrates after scoring against the Florida Panthers during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, March 11, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) TPA108
  4. Fennelly: About time Dave Andreychuk makes Hockey Hall of Fame

    Lightning Strikes

    It's Andy's time.

    And it's about time.

    Former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk has been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He had been eligible since 2009, a ridiculously long wait for someone who scored 640 goals, including a record 274 on the power play.

    LEFT: Dave Andreychuk talks at the podium as he is honored with a statue in front of the now-Amalie Arena.
  5. British government says 75 out of 75 buildings failed fire safety tests


    LONDON — Britain on Monday confronted a rapidly growing fire safety crisis after tests of the exterior cladding on dozens of public housing towers revealed a 100 percent failure rate, raising fears that this month's deadly inferno in London could be repeated elsewhere.

    Workers remove cladding from Whitebeam Court in Pendleton, Manchester, on Monday. A type of cladding restricted in other countries has been blamed for the fatal Grenfell Tower blaze.