Commissioners Court tackles Tax Office troubles as disturbing audit is released
Wednesday, May 23, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard
Travis County will have to face “some honest and possibly difficult conversations” during the upcoming budget process if it wants to avoid a repeat of the alleged crimes that have rocked the Tax Office, according to Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant.
Elfant delivered that assessment during his briefing of the Commissioners Court Tuesday morning about how he’s dealing with the fallout of an investigation that landed seven people in jail on Friday, four of them Tax Office employees.
“First of all, I want you and everyone in Travis County to know that I am angry and sickened that this discussion is even necessary,” Elfant said.
He explained that he first learned of the Texas Department of Public Safety investigation into the Motor Vehicle Division of his office on Friday. Elfant said he immediately gave permission to investigators to search Tax Office locations, seize any relevant evidence and shut down the four satellite offices during the ongoing investigation, which began after a report from County Auditor Nicki Riley uncovered “significant issues” with vehicle title transactions conducted by a third-party company called Auto Title Services.
That report determined that ATS may have failed to pass along as much as $1.05 million in state taxes.
As for the specific allegations against the seven people arrested, Elfant declined to comment, citing the need to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation. Of the suspects, three are charged with engaging in organized crime, three with forgery and one with bribery. A DPS official on Monday revealed that among the seized evidence is $72,000 in cash.
While the four satellite offices remain closed indefinitely, the main Tax Office headquarters on Airport Boulevard remains open. Elfant gave credit for that to his staff as well as Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, the Department of Motor Vehicles and Williamson County Tax Assessor-Collector Larry Gaddes.
While he insisted that he is determined to root out dishonest employees, Elfant said the episode underscores the findings of a 2013 audit he commissioned that found resources lacking at the Tax Office.
“Part of the conversation about how to reduce the risk of this occurring again will have to include some honest and possibly difficult conversations during the budget process,” Elfant said. “In light of what happened, when our satellite offices reopen, each location must be assigned full-time supervisors, and that will be a challenge.”
Each member of the court took time to offer words of support for Elfant.
“Of all my experience, I have never seen a better public servant than you,” Commissioner Brigid Shea told him.
Eckhardt praised the efforts of staff from across the county to respond to the crisis over the weekend. She described it as “an all hands on deck approach.”
“I think we are stronger for having gone through this over the weekend,” she declared.
While he too praised Elfant, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty evinced discomfort at the shortage of details being made available to the public. He initially balked at Eckhardt’s suggestion to go into executive session to discuss the case with county attorneys.
“This is subject matter that, good golly, a lot of people want to know what happened and how it happened,” Daugherty said.
Ultimately, Daugherty relented and Eckhardt took the commissioners into the executive session in order, she told them, “to bring you all up to speed on the facts on the investigation.”
“This being an ongoing investigation, we should not share that in public because it could hamper law enforcement activity,” she added.
Photo: DPS officials and Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore address charges at a Monday press conference. Photo by Caleb Pritchard.
The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.
You're a community leader
And we’re honored you look to us for serious, in-depth news. You know a strong community needs local and dedicated watchdog reporting. We’re here for you and that won’t change. Now will you take the powerful next step and support our nonprofit news organization?