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Elfant speaking about tax fraud investigation

Elfant to address Tax Office fraud investigation

Tuesday, May 22, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant will brief the Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning about the fraud investigation that landed seven people in jail on Friday, four of them Tax Office employees.

“There I will be able to provide details on the contingency plans that we have put in place and what the next steps are for the tax office moving forward,” Elfant said in a press release sent out on Monday morning.

The main Tax Office location on Airport Boulevard was open for business on Monday. However, four satellite offices remain closed as the Texas Department of Public Safety continues its investigation.

Late Friday afternoon, the county sent out a statement from Elfant revealing the arrest of several employees following an investigation triggered by an audit conducted by Travis County Auditor Nicki Riley. Elfant said he could not discuss details due to the ongoing investigation.

“However, please know I am appalled and extremely disappointed that members of my staff have been implicated in fraudulent activities that have violated the trust of Travis County residents. I assure you that my office and I will assist and cooperate in every way possible in order to hold accountable all who are involved,” he said.

At a Monday morning press conference, DPS officials along with Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore released more details, including the names of the suspects and the charges against them.

Shell Kenneth Prieto-Reese, Cathy Lynn Wilson and Cecil Leary Jr. are accused of engaging in organized crime. Susie Alvarez Araujo, Steven Hernandez and Eulalio Hernandez face forgery charges. A seventh suspect, Hipolita Tiquet De Dios, is charged with bribery.

Freeman Martin, DPS regional commander, said that the investigation had been underway for approximately two and a half months before Friday’s arrests. In addition to collaring the suspects, state troopers also seized hard drives, cell phones, documents and $72,000 in cash, according to Martin.

He declined to provide specific details about the allegations, but he offered a general illustration: “If you have an employee who is working with, say for example, a particular title company, and they’re lowering the value of that vehicle so they’re paying less taxes to the tax assessor-collector, that’s a good, broad example of how these cases come about.”

Of the three suspects who don’t work for the county, one is a spouse of a county employee, and the remaining two work with title companies as “runners,” according to Martin.

“They frequent these tax assessor-collector offices making title transitions,” Martin explained.

Moore commended the County Auditor’s Office for uncovering the irregularities that prompted the investigation. She also praised County Judge Sarah Eckhardt for helping facilitate the investigation, and she added that Elfant is fully cooperating.

“So the message for me today is this is a great partnership, and it brings about the kind of results that I think taxpayers want to see among their public servants,” Moore said.

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