James Tyrone Johnson (Jail photo)
WACO (December 13, 2013) A new investigator with the McLennan County Sheriff's Office made an arrest Friday in an effort to weed out fraud in the county's taxpayer-supported indigent defense program.
James Tyrone Johnson, 40, was arrested Friday on a warrant charging tampering with government records after sheriff’s Detective Eric Carrizales discovered that a defendant who claimed to be indigent misrepresented his worth on an official document, McLennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon said.
Johnson was in the McLennan County Jail Friday evening.
McLennan County Commissioners provided funds to the sheriff’s office last fall to review requests from defendants for court-appointed lawyers, Cawthon said.
"The commissioners were concerned that there was some fraud going on and that there were people using the indigent defense program who really had funds to hire a lawyer," he said.
"As we began to look into it, we (the sheriff's office) felt there was abuse going on there, too," Cawthon said.
Carrizales was reassigned to review indigent defense cases and Friday's arrest was the first produced by the review.
Cawthon said he was not sure what the budget for the new office is, but said the recovery of funds through investigation of fraud will more than compensate for the cost of the detective.
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said he expects more arrests in connection with fraud in indigent defense.
"It’s all part of an effort by the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee to be more efficient in that area and reduce fraud," Felton said.
He said McLennan County spends about $3.8 million a year for indigent defense.
"I knew it would only be a matter of time before we identified abuse," Felton said.
"We're going to really start clamping down" on offenders, he said.
"This is an issue we intend to enforce and I anticipate seeing more arrests in the future," Felton said.
Courts must appoint lawyers to represent criminal defendants who can’t afford to hire their own, but in order to qualify for taxpayer-funded representation defendants must certify that they are indigent by completing a pauper’s statement that provides information about their financial status.
If the defendants are deceptive or untruthful about their ability to pay, then that constitutes a violation by falsification of a government document, Cawthon said.
"We want to get the word out and make it clear that deceptions like this will not be tolerated," Cawthon said.