TAMPA — Former Tampa police Sgt. LaJoyce Houston stood before a federal judge Wednesday and said she had remorse, but admitted few wrongs.
She denied a prosecutor’s suggestions that she had a hand in a tax fraud scheme or that she knew her debts and purchases were paid for with stolen money.
Instead, Houston blamed the biological mother of her adopted daughter, Rita Girven, saying Girven used the ill-gotten money to pay Houston’s bills and buy computers, school uniforms, money orders and other items.
"This is not me," Houston said. "No matter what is said here, this is not me."
U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven was skeptical. She sentenced Houston to nearly three years in prison and ordered her to pay $61,660 in restitution.
Houston admitted in a plea agreement this year to a single charge of receiving stolen government property. It stemmed from a series of payments charged to a Target store card, drawn on a bank account that held the proceeds of federal tax refund fraud.
But the government said Houston’s misdeeds were far more extensive.
Houston worked for the Tampa Police Department for 16 years before she was fired in 2013. In court, prosecutors said Houston used her position as a police officer to access the personal information of five people in a private database. They suggested she gave the information to Girven so Girven could file fraudulent tax returns and collect the refunds.
Girven, a former police informer who had a long record of arrests, was close to Houston and her husband, former Tampa homicide Detective Eric Houston. Girven enjoyed open access to the Houstons’ Riverview home.
Defense attorney Lyann Goudie countered that there is no proof Houston gave the names to Girven.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Riedel also pointed to purchase records for items that were found in the Houstons’ home. They included school uniforms, Swarovski crystal jewelry, a MacBook Pro, and records of money orders and credit card payments. All of it was paid for with money Girven obtained through tax fraud — something Riedel said Houston was savvy enough to recognize.
"LaJoyce Houston is a cop," Riedel said. "She’s not just a cop. She’s a street cop. She’s not going to give Rita Girven, a repeat fraudster, access to all her bank accounts."
Goudie again said there was no proof Houston made any of the purchases or knew they were made with tax fraud money. She also said Houston had taken money from her father to pay off her debts.
Scriven didn’t buy it.
"Her explanations are fanciful," the judge said. "It just strains credulity. It’s just not believable."
The sentencing hearing capped a four-year legal odyssey for Houston.
Her firing from the Tampa Police Department came amid allegations that she had committed food stamp fraud by using a benefits card belonging to Girven. A judge later dismissed the charge.
But as that case was pending, Eric Houston was also fired after it was learned he was the target of a federal investigation.
Indictments against the couple followed. They were accused of helping Girven commit tax fraud and enriching themselves to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Girven, whose fraud netted more than $1 million, is serving a 12-year sentence. Prosecutors said she worked with a Tampa police civilian employee, Tonia Bright, to get personal information from a database to aid in the fraud. Bright was sentenced to two years.
Ultimately, prosecutors dropped most of the charges against the Houstons.
Eric Houston, like his wife, pleaded guilty to a single charge of receiving stolen government property. He has not yet begun serving the six-month sentence to federal prison he received in October.
On Wednesday, he sat in the courtroom gallery.
Scriven, mindful of the couple’s 13-year-old daughter, said LaJoyce Houston can delay the start of her sentence until after her husband completes his. Until then, she will be on home detention.
As she addressed the judge, Houston said she regretted putting so much trust in Girven but added that Girven was someone she had been close to for years.
"Why don’t you just admit that you did wrong?" Scriven asked.
"I admit that I did do wrong," Houston said, "by not noticing she paid off those credit cards."
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.