BEAUMONT - A former pastor who once headed an organization that helped victims of Hurricane Rita has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of hurricane fraud.
A man who once headed an organization in Hardin County that helped victims of Hurricane Rita is denying charges he used his position to enrich himself.
51 year old Tony Thornton of Kountze stood before Magistrate Judge Keith Giblin and pled not guilty to the ten charges against him.
They include conspiracy to commit theft, two counts of theft concerning programs that receive federal funds and seven counts of bank fraud.
Thornton was Executive Director of the Hardin County disaster recovery alliance. According to the grand jury indictment, he approved payments for hurricane repair work not done or not completed and his lumber company received money for building materials that weren't used in hurricane repairs.
Thornton made a brief appearance at the federal building Tuesday morning. He’s scheduled to return for trial February 4. According to federal documents, the government has been building a case against Thornton for five years. His attorney says it's only the beginning of a long road ahead.
Defense attorney Doug Barlow says he and his client, Tony Thornton, knew this day was coming. They’ve spent months preparing.
“It’s stressful for him, anybody who's charged with felonies it's a time of stress,” said Doug Barlow.
Tuesday morning they walked into the federal courthouse in Beaumont. Thornton stood before Magistrate Judge Keith Giblin.
"We want to be able to clear things up," said Barlow.
Thornton pleaded not guilty to ten federal charges of hurricane fraud.
“It’s not always true where there's smoke there's fire. The government has had over 5 years to investigate this, but they haven't provided us any discovery yet,” said Barlow.
Thornton was Executive Director of the Hardin County Disaster Recovery Alliance in 2006. The organization helped screen applicants for Hurricane Rita recovery. We spoke with Thornton then about one of his goals.
"You have just a few that are going to take advantage and those few we want to kind of weed out," Thornton told KFDM News on March 20, 2006.
“Mr. Thornton has gone to great lengths to assure the grant money was used for and purpose it was intended to help the underprivileged and most in need in times of disaster, and that’s what he attempted to do,” said Barlow.
The federal grand jury also indicted a contractor from Kountze, 51 year old Anthony Welborn Jones, on hurricane fraud charges. He has pleaded not guilty to three charges.
(Earlier KFDM report) - Tony Lynn Thornton, 51, of Kountze, was accompanied by his defense attorney, Doug Barlow, when he appeared Tuesday morning in Magistrate Judge Keith Giblin's court and entered not guilty pleads to ten charges contained in a federal indictment recently unsealed.
Thornton was executive director of the Hardin County Disaster Recovery Alliance, an organization that helped screen applicants for hurricane recovery assistance.
Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office accuse him of converting to personal use some of the funds destined for hurricane victims.
He's charged with one count of conspiracy to commit theft with federal funds, two counts of theft concerning federal funds and seven counts of bank fraud.
Another man, Anthony Welborn Jones, 51, of Kountze, was also indicted on Nov. 28, 2012, and charged with one count of conspiracy to commit theft concerning programs receiving federal funds and two counts of theft concerning programs receiving federal funds.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Thornton controlled and operated the HCDRA residential repair and renovation program following Hurricane Rita's impact on the Texas Gulf Coast on Sep. 24, 2005. Jones controlled and operated Dependable Maintenance and Construction (Dependable), a residential building/contracting business he operated out of his home. Dependable was contracted to do home repair and renovations for HCDRA. Thornton also owned County Seat Lumber Company, a lumber yard and store in Kountze, Texas, that sold building materials to HCDRA, Jones and other contractors that were employed by HCDRA. Between January 2007 and June 2008, Thornton and Jones are alleged to have conspired to defraud HCDRA by obtaining payment for repairs to houses that Jones did not complete. Jones is alleged to have submitted fraudulent invoices to Thornton, who in turn would use his position as executive director to obtain payment from HCDRA for Jones by falsely representing that the work was done as billed and securing payment for Jones. County Seat Lumber Company then received payment from Jones and HCDRA for building materials that Thornton falsely represented were used for HCDRA renovated homes. Additionally, Thornton is alleged to have created a fictitious vendor file for HCDRA in order to pay his wife's credit card bills.
If convicted, Thornton and Jones each face up to five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge and up to 10 years for each of the theft charges. Thornton also faces up to 30 years in federal prison for each of the bank fraud charges.
Magistrate Judge Giblin set Thornton's trial for February 4 in Judge Ron Clark's courtroom.
Thornton didn't comment but KFDM anchor Ashley Gaston spoke with his attorney, Doug Barlow, who says his client didn't commit the crimes. Barlow said his client used the federal funds to help hurricane victims, not himself.
Fire destroyed First Baptist Church in Kountze, Thornton's former church, on April 12, 2008. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ruled the fire arson. The fire began in the church office. Federal investigators haven't filed charges in connection with the fire. A spokeswoman for the ATF told KFDM News the investigation remains open.
Barlow said his client isn't responsible for the church fire.