CHAMBERS COUNTY — BREAKING: A judge in Chambers County has thrown out a felony campaign finance indictment against Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens.
Stephens made state and national headlines when she became the first African American woman elected sheriff in Texas. A grand jury in Chambers County indicted her for a State Jail Felony of Tampering With a Government Record and two Class A Misdemeanor charges stemming from her campaign in 2016.
During a hearing Thursday, Judge Randy McDonald in Chambers County decided to quash, or throw out, the felony indictment against Stephens, accusing her of changing the dollar amount of a contribution on a campaign finance form.
Stephens has maintained from the beginning she did nothing wrong and nothing was intentional.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office, which presented the case, says it may appeal the judge’s decision.
Jefferson County will now have to decide whether to pursue the felony case and that may be unlikely. A conviction on that State Jail Felony carries a possible punishment of up to 2 years in a state jail and up to a $10,000 fine.
The two Class A Misdemeanor campaign finance violations remain. The judge set a September 23 trial date in Chambers County on those. A conviction on that charge carries a possible punishment of up to 1 year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000.
During the hearing, the judge told both the state and the defense he was most concerned about whether the Texas Attorney General had the jurisdiction to prosecute this case from Jefferson County.
The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, or TECOLE, licenses peace officers.
KFDM/Fox 4 spoke with TECOLE spokeswoman Gretchen Grigsby. She says if someone is convicted of a felony, they lose their peace officer's license. If convicted of a Class A Misdemeanor, a peace officer's license would be suspended for a minimum of 120 days and a maximum of 10 years. There would be a hearing before an administrative law judge who makes a recommendation on how long a license is suspended. It then comes back to TECOLE Commissioners to make a final decision. It's up to a local jurisdiction, in this case, Jefferson County, to determine if the person can continue serving while a license is suspended.
KFDM/Fox 4's Quentin Hope was in court all day for the hearing and he'll report live tonight.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE IN APRIL 2018:
The Chambers County Sheriff's Office has released mugshots of Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens, Ray Beck and Joe Stevenson following a grand jury investigation into campaign contributions. The Texas Attorney General's Office presented the case Thursday to a special grand jury.
The Chambers County Sheriff's Office says a special grand jury indicted Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens on one State Jail Felony count of Tampering with a Government Record, related to campaign contributions, and two misdemeanor charges. Two other candidates for sheriff in the race Stephens won in 2016 were also indicted on misdemeanor charges.
According to a copy of the indictments obtained by KFDM/Fox 4, the contributions in question to each came from Larry Tillery, a Beaumont car dealer under federal investigation following raids on his business last year. Asset forfeiture documents obtained at the time by KFDM/Fox 4 accuse Tillery of operating "an illegal gambling and money laundering enterprise."
The felony indictment against Stephens accuses her of "reporting a $5,000 individual cash contribution in the political contributions of $50 or less section of said report, with knowledge of its falsity and with intent that it be taken as a genuine governmental record. Stephens told us it wasn't intentional.
Stephens was also indicted on two Class A Misdemeanor charges of knowingly accepting cash contributions of more than $100, namely, $5,000 and $1,000.
This is video of her after she surrendered Friday morning in Chambers County, where a special grand jury heard testimony Thursday in a case overseen by the Texas Attorney General's Office.
Stephens was released on $5,000 bond. If convicted of the State Jail Felony, she could face up to 2 years in state jail. The misdemeanor charges carry a punishment of up to 180 days in jail and up to a $4,000 fine.
Ray Beck, whom she defeated in the election for sheriff, was indicted on a Class A Misdemeanor charge of accepting cash contributions of more than $100. Beck is accused of knowingly accepting $5,000 from Tillery. He's also indicted on a Class A Misdemeanor charge of failing to return that contribution.
The indictment accuses Stevenson of a Class A Misdemeanor of knowingly failing to return a $1,000 cash political contribution.
Beck and Stevenson were released after posting $2,500 bond. If convicted, they could each face up to 180 days in jail and up to a $4,000 fine.
Voters elected Stephens in November of 2016. She is the first female African-American sheriff in Texas.
Statement from Zena Stephens attorney Audwin Samuel:
"Sheriff Stephens is the duly elected Sheriff of Jefferson County. She has spent three decades as a distinguished law enforcement officer protecting and serving our communities with valor and distinction. Prior to her election as Sheriff, Ms. Stephens had never run for public office. As a first-time candidate, she has now been accused of a technical violations of the lengthy and complex election code, in spite of her trying to cure that violation once she became aware of its existence. As the community will learn, Sherriff Stephens had no criminal intent in her actions. The charges, in this case, are a clear overreach by prosecutors who are willing to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” We intend to vigorously defend Sheriff Stephens against these allegations. She has been a critical contributor to cleaning up the corruption and the politics-as-usual in Jefferson County. We need her to continue to do so.
We look forward to fully vindicating Sheriff Stephens so that she can focus on doing what the good people of Jefferson County elected her to do - serving and protecting."
Statement from Sheriff's Office:
"The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is aware of the indictments against Sheriff Stephens. It is being handled through the proper channels. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office will continue to operate as usual providing dedicated service and protection to the citizens of our County. Any questions related to the indictment against Sheriff Stephens should be directed to the investigating agency."