KTRK continues investigation of Sheriff's Office email/spy-gate

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While I was away playing last week, KTRK-13 continued its investigation into emails that the Sheriff’s Department has worked hard to keep away from KTRK. Here’s an excerpt from Wayne Dolcefino’s report on May 20:

There are new developments in a 13 Undercover investigation. We’ve learned the district attorney has opened up an investigation into the sheriff’s department over its secret surveillance squad.

We first told you about how the squad conducted surveillance on Erik and Sean Ibarra after they sued the department. Some lawmakers have spoken out saying that squad smells of impropriety.

The revelation of the criminal investigation came this afternoon, via a letter the DA sent to the attorney general that we’ve obtained. 13 Undercover first confirmed the surveillance of the Ibarra brothers last week. They were the ones who sued the sheriff’s office for civil rights violations and won a big judgment against the sheriff. The surveillance occurred just weeks before the trial. Lawmakers demanded the state investigate the spying.

Dolcefino followed with a lengthy, detailed report on May 21 (no excerpt, best to click over and read it all).

Here’s an excerpt from Kevin Quinn’s followup on May 22:

We have the latest on the Harris County Sheriff’s Department’s secret squad and its inability to tell us who they watch and when. And now, we’re comparing how the Houston Police Department and others have conducted surveillance, and what records they say they have kept.

Generally, law enforcement must be suspicious of some criminal activity before they set up surveillance on someone. That was not the case with the Ibarra brothers, the men who settled a civil rights lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for nearly $2 million.

If the Houston Police Department is sued, Chief Harold Hurtt says under no circumstances does he use officers to investigate the plaintiffs. He says they are only used for internal affairs and criminal investigations.


Any surveillance done by his officers, he insists, would result in pages of reports and documentation.

“Whatever information or tactics that we use would be recorded in that report,” said Chief Hurtt.

Compare that to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office’s secret surveillance of Erik and Sean Ibarra, the brothers who sued the sheriff’s office, claiming their civil rights were violate when they were roughed up during a drug raid.

The only documentation we’ve seen of that is a single email. It was an email the sheriff tried to destroy months ago, an email only preserved because of legal action by 13 Undercover. That email details few specifics from the 5-6 hours the sheriff’s special investigative unit said they spent tailing the Ibarras over the course of three days. It concludes only that there was no suspicious activity.

And here’s an excerpt from a related followup by Dolcefino last night:

Remember when the sheriff defended that mass deletion of 750,000 emails in the midst of the Ibarra lawsuit? High ranking commanders testified under oath that emails being deleted detailing investigations had been saved.

Judge Bernal was reacting to our stories last week. It was our discovery of an email detailing surveillance of the brothers who had sued the sheriff’s office for civil rights violations. It is the only written evidence of a surveillance operation now under criminal investigation by a grand jury.

The county’s explanation was it was the only email being destroyed that should have been saved. The judge wasn’t buying it.

The sheriff’s office also unsuccessfully fought to keep the email a law enforcement secret.

13 Undercover complained that having the sheriffs special assistant make the call on what the public sees simply won’t do going forward. Plus the pace of email inspection is going too slowly.

Apparently, the judge — not the sheriff’s office — will now be making the call on what stays secret.

This just keeps getting more interesting!

Question: Exciting stories like this one eventually must have “-gate” attached to them. So is this Email-gate or Spy-gate?

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX