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...

"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.

Commissioners Claim Hidden Agenda With Sheriff Air Patrols

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