- Associated Press - Monday, January 4, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - During his 14 years as Texas’ top lawyer, Greg Abbott oversaw a significant - and expensive - escalation of police and firepower in the attorney general’s office, which now boasts 160 cops and an arsenal of assault rifles, handguns and tactical gear.

Meanwhile, the cost to pay and train that burgeoning police force, which primarily investigates white-collar crime, has skyrocketed as a direct result of policies Abbott pursued as attorney general and later approved as governor.

Due to a state law passed this year, dozens hired by Abbott and inherited by his successor, Ken Paxton, were given large pay raises that will cost taxpayers millions more each year.

An Abbott spokesman said the attorney general’s police force is a key component in fighting crime and rooting out fraud.

“Under the leadership of Greg Abbott, the Office of the Attorney General prioritized protecting Texas families by establishing the Cyber Crimes and Fugitive Units, making over 5,000 criminal arrests and identifying nearly $1 billion in fraudulent Medicaid overpayments,” spokesman John Wittman wrote to The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1Pzp7of ) in an email. “This would not have been possible without effective police personnel.”

But a former deputy director who worked under Abbott, along with a leading House Democrat, has questioned the need to spend millions of dollars to arm employees whose jobs rarely put them in the face of anything more dangerous than a sharpened pencil or biting word.

“I’ve seen it work without peace officers,” said former Assistant Attorney General Rod Boyles, who left the agency this month after 23 years. “We don’t need peace officers.”

The AG’s commissioned police work alongside civilian investigators to pursue white-collar criminals, such as computer hackers or doctors and patients who scam Medicaid. Although those officers are held to the same training standards as Texas Rangers and state troopers, they are plainclothed, don’t drive police cruisers and, until this year, were paid much less.

“Highly complex investigations are not really assisted by firepower and Kevlar,” said Boyles, a former deputy director in the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, which houses 115 investigators. “It’s straight, white-collar stuff, and your defendants are typically businessmen and business women.

In June, Abbott signed into law a bill that placed AG officers on the same pay scale as officers at the Department of Public Safety. So on Sept. 1, about 158 attorney general staff received pay raises ranging from $10,000 to $44,000 more a year, depending on the officer’s seniority.

Those higher salaries will cost taxpayers about $17 million more over the next five years and are projected to increase slightly each year, according to salary calculations obtained by The News.

A spokeswoman for Paxton said the attorney general’s office is conducting a “top-to-bottom review of everything” but gave no indication the agency would scale back its spending on police.

“Office of Attorney General law enforcement officers investigate a wide range of complex criminal activity, from child predators to Medicaid fraud to transnational criminal organizations,” spokeswoman Katherine Wise said. “And we must ensure they have the resources they need to do their job: catching criminals and keeping Texans safe.”

In the last five years, records show, an attorney general officer has fired a pistol while working only once. That incident, in June, was unrelated to the officer’s duties as a Medicaid fraud investigator.

Around the early 2000s, Boyles recalled, about a dozen commissioned officers worked among the 4,000 attorney general employees stationed across the state.

Since 2002, when Abbott first won that office, about 150 investigators either came in as sworn officers or were commissioned after being hired, state data show.

And more cops mean more guns.

Purchase orders and spending data show that in the last five years, the attorney general’s office spent about $134,000 on ammunition alone, including for rifle and hollow-point rounds designed to inflict serious bodily harm.

In Abbott’s last year there, 2014, the attorney general placed orders totaling $68,000 for 23,000 hollow-point rounds, about 115,000 assault rifle rounds and 190,000 target rounds.

Citing security concerns, the attorney general’s office would not release an inventory showing how many weapons are in its stores. But an accounting of its rifle cases and diverse bullet selection indicates officers are using M4 assault rifles, 9 mm pistols and .357-, .38-, .40- and .45-caliber weapons.

The office has also spent nearly $1 million in five years on high-end police radios, according to the agency’s spending data.

The attorney general’s office said the spending on guns and ammunition reflects the training and target practice its officers are required to complete each year by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

As for the array of weapons and bullets, “effective peace officer training has to be ongoing, challenging and dynamic,” Wise said.

Boyles contends that all the training is “dumbing down” investigations because less time is spent following paper trails while more time is spent at the shooting range or K-9 training classes, for instance.

“We actually do nothing,” he said. “We spend so much time just doing standard peace officer training, firearms training, safety training.”

Boyles’ former unit investigates doctors and dentists for overbilling or defrauding the state and federal insurance program. Those cases result in both civil judgments and criminal prosecutions.

Boyles said he retired this month after a disagreement with his boss, which was unrelated to this topic.

Having police on staff was “a luxury” that sometimes made investigations easier, he said, but because investigators typically team up with local or federal law enforcement, it’s not necessary that they be commissioned themselves.

“It’s peace officer training,” he added. “It’s not related to finding fraud or even knowing what a false claim is.”

Rep. Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican and former police officer, said Abbott’s administration first approached him a few years ago to draft a bill that would add his police staff to the “Schedule C” pay scale.

That’s the seniority pay scale applied to officers at DPS, Parks and Wildlife, and the Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

It was a no-brainer, Geren said, but the bill faced opposition and failed in 2013 for fears that adding those officers would further burden the police pension. The successful 2015 bill, however, did not add attorney general officers to the more expensive pension.

“They were underpaid, and they deserve those raises,” Geren said.

Geren’s bill was meant to benefit employees like Robyn Wilson. She’s a level-three investigator with 26 years of state service who earned $42,840 a year, much less than similarly ranked officers at DPS. Jumping to the Schedule C pay scale more than doubled her salary to $86,495 a year, the largest jump of anyone at the agency.

But an analysis of state salary data shows the measure was also a boon for managers, 17 of whom jumped into six figures after receiving raises ranging from about $19,000 to $36,000 a year.

In the Medicaid unit, which houses nearly half of the attorney general’s police force, 71 officers will collect about $1.2 million more in pay and benefits this year than last year, the data show.

An additional 85 officers work in separate units categorized as legal services, which includes cybercrime investigations and a fugitive apprehension program that coordinates with law enforcement agencies to round up felons. Officers in those roles will cost about $2 million more this year compared with last.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, says it’s difficult to measure the need for police throughout the attorney general’s office.

But he’s especially skeptical that so many are needed for Medicaid fraud investigations because there are scores of Medicaid fraud investigators, most of them civilians, working on similar cases at the Health and Human Services Commission’s Office of Inspector General.

“These are basically white-collar crimes,” he said. “A computer, as a tool, is better than a gun. I’m confused in that regard.”

Coleman said he voted for Geren’s bill because it seemed unfair that equally ranked police in one state bureaucracy were, by statute, paid less than others in another agency.

He said there was little discussion about whether the attorney general actually needed so many commissioned police.

“It appears to be the case around the state,” Coleman said. “Law enforcement has to be everywhere, and that means a gun instead of just a brain.”

___

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide