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Sheriff and candidates questioned in Texas AG investigation into campaign finance violation

Photo Illustration by Jery Jordan/SETINVESTIGATES.COM

By Jerry Jordan, Editor

Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens, sheriff’s candidates Joe “QB” Stevenson, Ray Beck and, at least one, yet to be named elected official, are under investigation by the Texas Rangers in conjunction with the Texas Attorney General’s Office for allegedly failing to report campaign contributions.

A weeklong investigation by SETINVESTIGATES.COM confirmed a grand jury was seated in Chambers County after a federal wiretap in the massive gambling investigation involving local car dealer, Larry Tillery, captured phone calls related to illegal cash campaign contributions of as much as $5,000.

Texas law makes it illegal to accept cash campaign contributions in excess of $100. Doing so is a crime punishable by a fine up to $4,000; one year in jail or both. Per Section 253.033 of the Texas Election Code, it states, “(a) A candidate, officeholder, or specific-purpose committee may not knowingly accept from a contributor in a reporting period political contributions in cash that in the aggregate exceed $100. (b) A person who violates this section commits an offense. An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor.”

When contacted, Stevens confirmed she was aware of the allegations against her but would not comment further. Sources said Stevens was supposed to testify before the grand jury Thursday but that did not happen. The source said a sealed indictment was handed up by the grand jury Thursday afternoon.

“There is a process and we will handle the matter accordingly,” Stevens said, in a phone call with SETINVESTIGATES.COM.

Beck said he ran a clean campaign and should have no issues. He was aware the Texas Rangers has been reviewing campaign contributions.

Stephenson responded view direct message on Facebook stating that he had never received a $5,000 cash contribution from Tillery but in follow-up questioning regarding whether money may have come from an associate of Tillery’s, he said, “I think you know the answer to every question you’ve asked me. That’s why you’re doing a story. Where ever I’m asked to be? I’ll be there. Whatever, the Texas Rangers inform me, I need to be, I’ll be there. Whatever, they ask me to do, I’ll do it. You’re talking about, some grand jury proceedings. I answered your question. I have not, heard anything about that, until you asked about. If I’m to be contacted, can you allow that to happen, please sir.”

The source said all of the candidates for sheriff, including Rod Carroll, who is currently the chief of police in Vidor, were contacted by the Texas Rangers. When questioned, Carroll confirmed that he had met with the Texas Rangers but said although he is familiar with who Tillery is, he did not receive any campaign contributions from him.

In addition to criminal penalties violations of the Texas Elections Code also carries civil liability. Sections 253.132 and Section 253.133 lay out the process for recovery of civil remedies by affected candidates and the state of Texas. An affected candidate could receive double the amount of any illegal campaign expenditure or contribution made to the opposing candidate and the state of Texas could go to court to seek triple the amount. The chapter also allows the recovery of “reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in the suit.”

Additionally, a charge of tampering with a government document or converting campaign contributions to personal use is being considered.

The FBI obtained a FISA warrant in order to listen to and record Tillery’s phone calls from September 2016 through December 2016 as part of an ongoing investigation into a multi-million dollar gambling operation he had been operating for decades. Information from those calls not related to any federal charges being investigated but that may be in violation of state laws were passed on to the Texas Attorney General, said a source familiar with the government’s handling of similar cases. It was also during those phone calls that information was obtained about Tillery transporting $230,00 in illegal gambling proceeds to Houston and he was stopped in Chambers County.

“At 3:49 p.m., Larry Tillery called Judy Tillery (wife) and told her he was heading into Houston to conduct a ‘payoff,’” states a federal complaint provided to SETINVESTIGATES.COM in 2017. “At approximately 4:48 p.m. on February 6, 2017, law enforcement conducted a traffic stop on Larry Tillery while he was driving his 2015 Mercedes-Benz S550. Larry Tillery consented to the search of the vehicle after advising law enforcement that he had approximately $230,000 in the vehicle. Law Enforcement found a canvas bag with $230,100 in currency in the rear floorboard of the vehicle.”

The federal case, which linked several elected officials and professionals to Tillery is being run out of the Tyler Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas. Indictments in that case are expected to be released soon and federal prosecutors stated in recent court filings they expect to move forward on the matter beginning in July.

The source said prosecutors with the Texas Attorney General’s Office are using a Chambers County Grand Jury because of the connections Tillery and his associates have to elected officials in Jefferson County and because a nexus was established when the $230,000 was found that allows the case to be heard there.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An indictment is not an indication of guilt but rather a part of the legal process that indicates there is enough information to move forward to a trial. — © SETINVESTIGATES.COM

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