A grand jury has blamed lax supervisors for allowing a “really big, organized” vehicle title fraud ring to flourish within the Travis County Tax Office.
In a three-page report issued Thursday night, the grand jury wrote that “due to its practice of inadequate supervision, poor accountability, bad management and outright negligence,” the tax office “facilitated the theft of potentially millions of dollars of tax revenue due to the State of Texas.
“And, while the TC [Travis County] Tax Office and its supervisory staff may be unwitting facilitators in this theft,” the grand jurors wrote, “they are no less responsible for the financial burden this theft places on the state, Travis County and more importantly, the citizens of Travis County, should this dereliction of duty result in increased taxes for its citizens.”
The report said the dereliction of duty began at the top, with Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant. According to the report, Elfant kept one supervisor on despite several reprimands for questionable behavior.
Supervisors regularly neglected to make the semi-weekly visits expected of them to the four satellite tax offices around the county, the report says.
In its report Thursday, the grand jury said it was “greatly alarmed at the pervasive lack of supervision and apparent willful dereliction of duty of the supervisors and officers of the TC Tax Office.” The report included the finding of what “appears to be a pervasive culture, within the supervisory ranks of the TC Tax Office, of willfully looking the other way when presented with questionable practices or behaviors.”
The grand jury kicked off its investigation after the arrest of seven people — four of them employed by the tax office — for their part in a ring that took bribes to falsify purchase prices of vehicles in order to minimize taxes for holders of titles that should not have been issued.
As The Texas Monitor reported in May, four county employees, all tax specialists of various ranks, were charged with felony theft by a public servant: Steven Hernandez, 35, employed with the county since July 2015; Shell Kenneth Prieto-Reese, 43, employed by the county since September 2008; Susie Alvarez Araujo, 43, employed by the county since April 2015; and Cathy Lynn Wilson, 57, employed by the county since December of 1995.
Three others — Hipolita Tiquet De Dios, 41; Cecil Leary Jr., 61; and Eulalio Hernandez, 72, were charged with felony engagement in organized crime.
An audit of the tax office released in March revealed “alarming irregularities” investigated by tax office officials and the Department of Public Safety.
Elfant, who apologized profusely at the time of the arrests, issued a statement on social media Thursday night saying, “We knew that we had issues, and we’d been working for years with the commissioners and PBO [the Travis County Planning and Budget Office] and with everybody else. And we’ve made a lot of progress; we just didn’t do enough quick enough, unfortunately. For that, I have to take responsibility.”
The grand jury recommended the tax office begin doing monthly and annual audits of vehicle title transactions; institute training to identify irregularities in those transactions; and seek out best practices used in tax offices in other counties.
Elfant has asked Travis County for $920,000 to hire 14 more employees for his motor vehicle division, a request that has not yet been approved.
“Our goal,” Elfant wrote, “is to rebuild the public trust and meet the needs of our customers. We will continue to work closely with the county attorney, along with the county auditor and others, to restore confidence in the tax office. I am fully committed to making sure this never happens again.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].