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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Tampa police officer fired, charged with welfare fraud

Tampa police fired and arrested another of their own on Thursday. This time, the charges involve a longtime police sergeant accused of using a convict's food stamp card.

Police arrested - and Chief Jane Castor fired - Sgt. La Joyce Houston, a 16-year veteran of the force. Houston, 47, is charged with two counts of welfare fraud and one count of grand theft. She was released from the Hillsborough County Orient Road Jail after posting bail set at $6,000, records show.

The firing comes less than a month after the chief terminated two officers for unrelated reasons. One officer had been arrested on charges she stole money from an evidence area. The other was Sgt. Ray Fernandez, terminated after police investigators said he was not truthful about his involvement in the drunken driving arrest of a Tampa attorney in January who prosecutors say was set up.

“I am deeply disappointed to stand before you today and announce that another Tampa police officer has been arrested,” Castor said at an afternoon press conference. “She has betrayed the community, the men and women of the Tampa Police Department and everything that our agency stands for.”

Castor met Houston at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the Tampa office of the sergeant's attorney, Daniel Fernandez. Castor informed Houston of the charges against her and fired her.

“She made no statement,” Castor said. “She was very stoic.”

The case against Houston began when police were investigating someone else.

Police investigators on Aug. 8 were secretly listening to Hillsborough County jail calls that involved inmate Rita Girven as part of a theft investigation, Castor said. Girven had been arrested that day on charges she violated her probation stemming from an identity theft charge and two counts of theft.

As Tampa police investigators listened to the calls, they were shocked to learn Houston was on the other line talking to Girven, Castor said. Girven, 30, of Tampa, has an arrest record that dates back to 2005. She has been charged 49 times and convicted 14 times. Most of the convictions are for theft or fraud, Castor said.

Over the next nine weeks, Girven called Houston more than 35 times, Castor said. In one of the calls, Girven told Houston where to find Girven's food stamp card. On Sept. 10, Houston used the card to buy $365 worth of food at a Gibsonton Walmart, Castor said.

Houston then gave the card to a family member to make more unauthorized purchases. That relative paid Houston 50 cents on the dollar for the food stamp money, and Houston put that money into Girven's jail fund, Castor said.

“Police officers are tasked with protecting those individuals who can't protect themselves,” Castor said. “La Joyce Houston did the exact opposite. She stole government assistance, thereby depriving those individuals that really needed that assistance.”

The food stamp card was in Girven's name and the name of her 12-year-old son. One of Girven's relatives has had custody of the boy since he was an infant.

Houston and Girven have long known each other. Houston and her husband, Tampa police Det. Eric Houston, have had custody of Girven's daughter, who is now 9, since she was born. They legally adopted her in 2009. Girven hasn't provided financial assistance to the Houston family for her daughter, Castor said.

Eric Houston's status and duties with Tampa police haven't changed because it doesn't appear that he was involved or knew of the criminal activity, Castor said. However, the internal affairs department will investigate the case to make certain “there was no impropriety,” Castor said.

Fernandez wouldn't discuss the specifics of the case Thursday but said La Joyce Houston has been a valued member of the police department for years.

Houston started in 1997 as a uniformed patrol officer and rose through the ranks, working as a school resource officer and narcotics detective. She was named a sergeant in 2009. She was was working as a street patrol sergeant when she was fired.

“She has an absolutely flawless record with the department,” Fernandez said. “She's a substantial individual and a substantial asset to the department.”

At the press conference, Castor said the recent arrests and firings of officers doesn't take away from the nearly 1,000 Tampa police officers that work hard and honestly every day for the community they serve.

“I don't think that I have to restore the public's trust,” Castor said. “I believe that the men and women of the Tampa Police Department do that every day. They gain and maintain the trust of the citizens that we serve out there.”

Reporter Keith Morelli contributed to this report.

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