CENTER — The district attorney in a Texas county with a well-known drug-trafficking route repeatedly allowed suspected drug runners and money launderers to receive light sentences — or escape criminal charges altogether — if they forfeited their cash to prosecutors.
As a result, authorities collected more than $800,000 in less than a year using a practice that essentially let suspects buy their way out of allegations that, if proven, would probably have resulted in prison sentences.
“They were looking out for the treasury of their county instead of doing the job of protecting society,” said R. Christopher Goldsmith, a Houston attorney who represented one of the defendants.
The system engineered by Shelby County District Attorney Lynda Kaye Russell is now one focus of a federal criminal investigation that is also reviewing whether Russell and other law enforcement officials targeted black motorists for traffic stops.
Interviews, court records and other documents reviewed by The Associated Press show numerous examples of suspects who went unpunished or got unusually light sentences after turning over tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The money from those and other defendants increased the DA’s forfeiture account by more than two hundredfold and helped ease a tight budget. The county’s former auditor has testified that at least a portion of it was spent on campaign materials, parades, holiday decorations, food, flowers, gifts and charitable contributions.
In one instance, a man accused of transporting 15 kilos of cocaine and more than $80,000 in cash got probation after forfeiting the money to the district attorney. When the Justice Department learned about the deal, federal officials regarded it as so outlandish that they took the rare step of building their own case.
In another case, a woman caught with more than $620,000 stuffed into Christmas presents walked away after reaching a similar agreement.
Russell, who has been district attorney in the county on the Texas-Louisiana border since 1999, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. She announced in June that she was resigning, effective at the end of the year.