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
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
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.
"All of these things, though… have got to be brought to Commissioners Court," said Eversole.
Commissioner El Franco Lee also told Local 2 Investigates he was surprised at the current size and structure of the sheriff's air support unit.
"If they're hiding things from commissioners, that would be a concern," he said.
Lee, Eversole and Emmett all said it's not commissioners' job to inspect every line of another elected official's budget, but all three voiced concerns about the size of the air support unit facilities and spending focused on helicopters.
Commissioner Sylvia Garcia declined to speak on camera, but a spokesman said she voted against accepting the donated airplane to begin with because she had concerns about costs adding up for an aviation unit.
While Garcia did not respond to the questions himself, his spokesman, Alan Bernstein, said commissioners have been "highly aware" of every expenditure. He also pointed out that commissioners voted unanimously for individual expenses at the air support unit.
In an e-mail, Bernstein wrote that, "The sheriff's office has saved county taxpayers millions of dollars in efficiencies brought about with the help of financial experts the sheriff recruited onto his staff in 2009."
He and the sheriff's Homeland Security Major Bob Doguim said grant money was being used instead of local tax dollars for "a majority" of the expenses at the air support unit, including the helicopter training.
"I think it was done in a prudent way. I think the expense of it is certainly justified," Doguim said. "There is no doubt that we would like to move in the direction of having rotor craft.
But before that he said, "we owe it to DPS" to have qualified personnel flying with them when sheriff's missions are handled in state helicopters.
"Would we like to sometime in the future acquire the capability or acquire a helicopter? Yes, we would. And, would this serve us for that purpose should that happen? Obviously. But I would have recommended the training that we did for the helicopter initially, even if we never got a helicopter because, again, I think for safety purposes and support of DPS, I think it's important for us to have our people properly trained if we're going to put them in a piece of equipment like that," said Doguim.
While Local 2 Investigates found on-duty deputies centering their attention on the pilot's helicopter training during two separate weekdays, Doguim said the deputy pilot handled some of the training on a weekend day off with no pay, and he said the department also saved money by holding the training in Houston as opposed to flying elsewhere.
"We have nothing to hide," said Doguim.
Doguim said the reason the hangar is so large is to occasionally house the aircraft for other agencies who help on sheriff's missions.
"For what they're doing for us, I think it's a fair sharing of assets for us to be able to do that," he said.
Bernstein wrote in his e-mail to Local 2 Investigates that, "No member of the (Commissioners) Court and no court staffer has ever complained to the sheriff's office that they lacked information about the air wing. The sheriff is an elected, independent official with the authority to make his own policy decisions. Of course, he and his staff always respond to the court's questions."
Eversole responded, "I'm not going to manage the sheriff's department. I'm also not going to allow him to do things that I think are not his authority to do."
Radack hinted that county budget staff needs to review every line of the sheriff's budget more carefully in the future.
"I think it's going to require a lot more security by the court," he said.
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