Commissioners Claim Hidden Agenda With Sheriff Air Patrols

HOUSTON -- One Harris County Commissioner said he felt "deceived" and another promised new oversight for sheriff's office spending after Local 2 Investigates exposed exactly how money was being spent on a little-known sheriff's air...


HOUSTON --

One Harris County Commissioner said he felt "deceived" and another promised new oversight for sheriff's office spending after Local 2 Investigates exposed exactly how money was being spent on a little-known sheriff's air patrol operation.

County records show a growing annual budget of $438,307 for the

Harris County Sheriff's

Air Support Unit, but some commissioners said that money now appears to be advancing a hidden agenda as the sheriff works to someday add a helicopter patrol.

"I want to know what stage they're at, how much money they've spent on this program and when are they going to let commissioners court know about it," Precinct 4 Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole said.

County Judge Ed Emmett said, "I think that's something we need to look at."

Helicopters are not included in the sheriff's air support unit budget. It's designed to center around a single airplane that was donated to Harris County in 2008. Sheriff's air patrol deputies say the $90,000 Maule MXT-7-180 airplane is being flown on daily patrols of the Houston Ship Channel, while also assisting patrol deputies in searches for fleeing suspects or stolen cars.

Commissioners were surprised by Local 2 Investigates video showing full-time deputies focusing on helicopter training at their modern and spacious hangar that appears large enough to house several aircraft.

Precinct 3 Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said, "When you take a look at that small plane, I would say that what they have constructed out there, what they're leasing out there, is way more than what's needed to house one small plane. I would say that the lease cost of the hangar far exceeds the value of the plane."

The air support unit's annual budget includes $64,200 each year for leasing the large hangar.  The contract shows $129,600 being spent over three years to "build out" or construct upgrades to the facility at Hooks Airport, northwest of Houston.

"That doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me," said Radack, an outspoken critic of the sheriff. "I think it was something that someone chose to start building up, and spending money in several different ways to achieve the beginning of their aviation division and trying to expand it at a time that we're faced with budgetary concerns at the county."

The helicopter training cost $10,925 last month. Sheriff's staff requested the funding, which was unanimously approved by commissioners, saying one pilot needed chopper certification in order to fly with other agencies that already operate helicopters, such as the

Texas Department of Public Safety.

The local DPS aviation chief did not return calls for comment.

Radack said, "Now we have a person that's been trained to fly a helicopter, almost $11,000 worth of training, and the sheriff's department doesn't have any helicopter. It did not need to be spent. In my mind, that's clear."

While Radack is opposed to adding a helicopter patrol, Emmett and Eversole voiced concerns even though they are in favor of someday adding helicopters to the sheriff's air arsenal.

Eversole said, "(Sheriff) Adrian Garcia, in my opinion, needs to stand before Commissioners Court and say, 'Here's what we would like to do.'"

Eversole said he felt "deceived" about the sheriff's true purpose for his budget requests in the air support unit.

"We didn't fully understand what the item on the budget was when it said 'aviation division,'" said Eversole.

Commissioners said the sheriff recently asked to use $6 million in federal grant money for a helicopter patrol, but commissioners instead voted to spend that money on modernizing jail inmate records. Then, when Eversole visited the hangar, he said deputies showed him a full packet of materials focused on having a helicopter donated by the Jefferson County sheriff in East Texas.

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