(CN) – The first black female sheriff in Texas found herself on the other side of the law Friday when she was booked into a county jail on charges she accepted illegal cash donations for her 2016 election campaign.
A Chambers County grand jury Thursday charged Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Collins Stephens, 52, with felony government records tampering and two misdemeanor counts of accepting cash campaign contributions of more than $100, in violation of the Texas Election Code.
Stephens turned herself into the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office and was booked at the Chambers County Jail in Anahuac and released with her payment of a $5,000 bond.
According to the indictment, Stephens broke the law when she accepted $1,000 for her sheriff campaign from Beaumont used car salesman Larry Tillery in May 2016 and $5,000 from him in September 2016.
Tillery is the subject of a federal criminal investigation in which he is accused of running a sports gambling ring and money-laundering scam.
Federal prosecutors filed a forfeiture complaint in Beaumont federal court in April 2017 seeking permission to seize nine of Tillery’s properties, including his Beaumont car dealership.
A supporting affidavit states that police pulled Tillery over in his Mercedes on Feb. 6, 2017, and seized $230,000 that he told them was in the car.
Law enforcement had learned from Tillery’s tapped phone call that he was driving to Houston with the cash because he “had payoffs to make,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security special agent Jonathan Thomas wrote in the affidavit.
“Superbowl LI was played on February 5, 2017. Based on the timing of Larry Tillery’s trip to Houston, and calls intercepted by law enforcement prior to the stop indicating he was on his way to make a ‘payoff,’ I recognize that Larry Tillery was traveling to pay a sports gambling debt,” the affidavit states.
It appears that records of Tillery’s illegal campaign contributions to Sheriff Stephens turned up during the feds’ ongoing criminal investigation of him.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office is heading up Stephens’ prosecution.
“The case initially came to the attention of state law enforcement officials when the offenses were discovered during an unrelated federal investigation and forwarded to the Texas Rangers for further investigation,” Paxton said in a statement Friday announcing Stephens’ indictment.
The indictment states that Stephens’ records tampering charge stems from her October 2016 campaign finance report, in which she incorrectly listed the $5,000 donation in a section of the report for contributions of $50 or less.
Stephens’ attorney Audwin Samuel said she made mistakes due to her unfamiliarity with Texas election law.
“Prior to her election as sheriff, Ms. Stephens had never run for public office. As a first-time candidate, she has now been accused of technical violations of the lengthy and complex election code, in spite of her trying to cure that violation once she became aware of its existence. As the community will learn, Sheriff Stephens had no criminal intent in her actions,” he said in a statement.
Two of Stephens’ opponents in the 2016 race for Jefferson County Sheriff were also indicted Thursday, and charged with taking excessive cash campaign donations from Tillery.
According to his indictment, Joseph Stevenson, a Jefferson County Precinct 1 deputy constable who lost to Stephens in the March 2016 Democratic primary, is charged with a misdemeanor for accepting a $1,000 campaign contribution from Tillery.
Ray Beck, a retired Beaumont police lieutenant and Stephens’ Republican opponent in the general election, is facing two misdemeanors for allegedly taking $5,000 for his campaign from Tillery and not returning it.
Though Paxton said in a statement his office is working with the Chambers County District Attorney’s Office on the cases, an employee of the DA’s office told Courthouse News on Friday that the DA has nothing to do with them.
Jefferson County, whose seat is Beaumont, is on the Louisiana border. Chambers County borders it to the west.
Asked why the grand jury was convened in Chambers County rather than Jefferson County where the defendants ran for sheriff, a Paxton spokeswoman said, “The Texas Election Code provides for violations of election law to be brought in an adjoining county.”
Stephens brought years of law-enforcement experience to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department when she took over in January 2017.
She was a Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy for 16 years. She left that job in 2013 and spent three years as campus police chief at Prairie View A&M University, 55 miles northwest of Houston, before her election to sheriff, the Beaumont Enterprise reported.
If convicted, she could be sentenced to up to six years behind bars and fined up to $8,000.