A drug lemur? Former Refugio police chief pleads guilty to misusing funds
By BY GHENI PLATENBURG - GPLATENBURG@VICAD.COM
May 23, 2012 at 12:23 a.m.
Updated May 24, 2012 at 12:24 a.m.
• Judge: Visiting Judge Bert Richardson, of San Antonio
• Prosecutors: District Attorney Michael Sheppard and Assistant District Attorney Ray Hardy
• Defense: John Gilmore, of Corpus Christi
Events took a surprising turn Wednesday afternoon in the trial of former Refugio Police Chief Chris Brock.
After opening arguments and one witness' testimony, Brock, 51, made the decision during a lunch break to accept a plea deal from the Refugio County District Attorney's Office.
Brock was charged with recklessly misusing fiduciary property in an amount between $20,000 and $100,000, a third-degree felony, from the police department's forfeiture account.
He received a three-year prison sentence and must pay court costs.
Visiting Judge Bert Richardson, of San Antonio, accepted the agreement.
The crime had a punishment range from two to 10 years in state prison. A $10,000 fine could also be assessed.
Brock will not have to pay restitution.
"I feel good about it. Justice was done," said Refugio County District Attorney Michael Sheppard. "It's a vindication for Marina Balusek and Lillian Linney. They were the secretaries who brought this to light. If it hadn't been for their courage in bringing this forward, it never would have happened."
Sheppard, who said he originally expected the trial to last about two weeks, said a defendant deciding to accept a plea deal once a trial has begun is not an unusual occurrence.
The case was moved to Victoria from Refugio on a change of venue request.
The Texas Rangers and the FBI investigated the case for three years before an indictment was issued in September 2009.
In early 2002, Refugio police seized more than $2 million in cash, prompting the Refugio District Attorney's Office to initiate forfeiture proceedings and turn the bulk of the money over to the police department.
By the end of September 2008, only about $69,000 was left in the account, Sheppard revealed during opening statements.
Brock misappropriated forfeiture funds between September 2002 and September 2005.
While Brock claimed to have spent about $96,000 worth of checks written to cash to criminal informants and undercover cops, he failed to bring any cases forward to the District Attorney's office.
The state argued Brock really spent the money on a number of expenses for himself and his family.
Brock spent money on the following: • His children's cell phone bills;
• Women's western wear from Cavender's Boot City;
• A $1,300 big screen television from Sam's Club;
• Gasoline on a trip to Las Vegas;
• Gasoline for his semiweekly trips to a Rockport church where he served as a preacher.
Other questionable activity of Brock's included: • Buying vehicles for the police department and later reselling them to the department for an amount higher than market value;
• Reimbursing himself thousands of dollars for money he paid out of his own pocket for Rib-Fest and Gospel-Fest;
• Selecting his son as the recipient of a $1,000 college scholarship from the funds;
• Spending $200 on Lion's Club raffle tickets and keeping the prize - $5,000 in gift cards - for himself;
• Writing about $160,000 worth of checks to cash supposedly for nonprofit organizations;
• Reimbursing himself for money he said he paid to feed and care for a drug interdiction lemur, which, by all accounts, was never trained nor worked a day on the job.
"The monkey did not make a good interdiction officer," said Sheppard.
What's more, Brock spent about $228,000 on marketing items personalized with his name, including stress balls, pill bottles and Frisbees after receiving nude photos and partaking in inappropriate calls of a sexual nature with female reps from the marketing companies.
"He told Balusek he was going to 'run this town,'" said Sheppard.
The defendant had his former secretaries, Balusek and Linney, and a former officer, all of whom were his subordinates, serve as a second signature on all the checks he wrote.
Brock did not have receipts for any of the job-related purchases or transactions he claimed to have made.
"You get receipts and there is a paper trail," said Sheppard. "All the best law enforcement in the state of Texas knows that."
Kent Richardson, an assistant attorney general for the state of Texas, was the first and only witness called to the stand during the trial.
Richardson testified that Chapter 59 of the Texas Criminal Code of Procedures states that money issued to a law enforcement agency from forfeiture funds could be spent at the discretion of the person in charge, in this case Brock, but only for law enforcement purposes.
While the law does not provide a specific definition of what law enforcement purposes is, Richardson said common examples would be salaries and overtime pay for officers; officer training; and specialized investigation equipment supplies.
Under the statute, a city council does not get to direct how the funds are spent; however, the chief does have to submit a budget to the council informing them how he plans to spend the money, Richardson said.
However, the statute does not say the city council has to approve the budget before the funds are spent.
Also, copies of the budget do not have to be submitted to the Texas Attorney General, but an audit form does have to be submitted to the AG, said Richardson.
He said that AG's only responsibility is to review the audit form to ensure all the appropriate blanks have been filled in so they can make the document public record, but they do not check for inaccuracies or irregularities.
Balusek and Linney contacted the Texas Rangers after they noticed Brock's spending activity.
"A disgruntled employee starts off in 2005 with an ax to grind. She's mad and has other motives," defense attorney John Gilmore said during opening statements. "This was not done in secret. Refugio is a small town. All the public officials know what's going on."
Gilmore argued his client's submission of his expenditures to the attorney general's office showed he was being transparent.
"He is not a bad man with bad intentions doing bad acts with a guilty mind. He is a good man with good intentions doing good acts with an innocent mind," said Gilmore. "The government conducted a witch hunt on Chris Brock."
Gilmore declined to comment about the outcome of the case.
Balusek, who was scheduled to testify before the jury, explained after the proceedings why she blew the whistle on the defendant.
"I saw a lot of cash money going out. I was concerned for the welfare of the police department," said Balusek, who said she first alerted Linney to the irregularities. "I just wanted to do what was right."
"I don't know if it's a victory, because what's lost is lost. It can't be recovered, but I feel, in a sense, justice is done."
Brock, who is free on bond, will be sentenced in 30 days.
If he does not show up to the sentencing hearing, the plea deal will be voided and the trial will have to begin again.