State and Travis County officials late Monday continued an investigation after seven people — four of them county tax specialists — were charged for their roles in a vehicle title fraud ring.
Results of a March audit by the Travis County Auditor’s Office revealed a “really big organized scheme,” that triggered the investigation, Freeman Martin, regional commander for the Department of Public Safety, told reporters at a press conference Monday. “This audit revealed some irregularities that were alarming,” Martin said.
Officials at the Department of Public Safety and the Travis County Tax Office on Monday did not disclose how many vehicle titles might have been involved, or the total value of fraudulent activity. Investigators seized $72,000 in cash, documents, computer hard drives and cellphones at the time of the arrests.
“Please know I am appalled and extremely disappointed that members of my staff have been implicated in fraudulent activities that have violated the trust of Travis County residents,” Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor-collector, said in a statement he issued Monday morning. “I assure you that my office and I will assist and cooperate in every way possible in order to hold accountable all who are involved.”
Elfant closed satellite tax offices on Monday, while the main office, the online title registration and several county-run HEB locations remained open.
Hipolita Tiquet De Dios, 41, Cecil Leary Jr., 61, and Eulalio Hernandez, 72, were charged Monday with engaging in organized crime — all felonies — according to a KXAN-TV story. Two of the suspects worked for title companies and one of them is a spouse of one of the county employees, according to a CBS Austin account.
The four county employees were charged with felony theft by a public servant. They are: Steven Hernandez, 35, Tax Specialist I, employed with the county since July 2015; Shell Kenneth Prieto-Reese, 43, Tax Specialist II, employed by the county since September 2008; Susie Alvarez Araujo, 43, Tax Specialist II, employed by the county since April 2015; and Cathy Lynn Wilson, 57, Tax Specialist III, employed by the county since December of 1995.
Among the illegal activities involved, county employees were falsifying the purchase prices of vehicles on title transactions to minimize the taxes for which the title holder would be responsible, according to the KXAN story.
“There’s a potential for corruption if you have an employee who is working with say a particular title company and they’re lowering the value of that vehicle so they’re paying less taxes—is a good broad example of how these cases came about,” Martin said.
The county employees were charged with taking bribes to file titles that should not have been issued, Martin told reporters. “If you have an employee that doesn’t have integrity and is taking bribes, they can pass stamped documents and sign titles that should not be assigned,” he said.
After the Auditor noticed the title irregularities, he notified Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, who asked for help from the DPS. Investigators began reviewing videotapes of title activity in two precinct offices before making the arrests, Martin said.
“I want to thank the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), Criminal Investigation Division, the District Attorney’s office, and the Travis County Auditor for their part in rooting out a problem that has plagued the Motor Vehicle Division of the Travis County tax office,” Elfant said in another statement.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].