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Fired detective investigated for tax fraud

— Federal authorities are investigating whether a fired Tampa detective took personal information from homicide victims and police databases and used the data for tax fraud, according to explosive details contained in court documents obtained Friday by The Tampa Tribune.

Former Tampa homicide Det. Eric Houston and his wife, LaJoyce, a former police sergeant, as well as another former civilian employee of the department, are being investigated for possible involvement in stolen identity tax refund fraud, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court. The affidavit was filed in support of a search of an external hard drive found in Houston's former police department office.

The search warrant says investigators are looking for “evidence of tax fraud, theft of government funds, and identity theft, from January 1, 2010, through the present.”

The investigation, thus far, has determined that Eric Houston and civilian employee Tonia Bright used police databases to obtain personal information for thousands of people in whose name fraudulent tax returns were filed, according to the affidavit.

Nearly two dozen of those were connected to investigations conducted by Eric Houston's squad, the affidavit says.

“Approximately 21 of the individuals in whose names fraudulent tax returns were filed and who were run in (police databases) by Eric Houston and Tonia Bright were victims, witnesses, or defendants of homicide/aggravated batteries investigated by TPD, specifically investigated by Eric Houston or his squad,” the affidavit states. One of those individuals was a person who died of an overdose that was investigated by Eric Houston.

Neither Eric Houston nor Bright has been charged in connection with the investigation, which is still ongoing.

Tampa police have struggled to get control of the wave of identity theft tax refund fraud that washed over city streets, starting in 2010. Some police officers were victims of the fraud, in which criminals used stolen names, birth dates and Social Security numbers to file bogus tax returns to con the Internal Revenue Service out of fraudulent “refunds.”

For a time, Tampa was ranked the top city in the nation for the fraud, which has drained hundreds of millions of dollars from federal coffers. Criminals even used the identity of a slain police officer, David Curtis, to file a bogus tax return.

Eric Houston was one of the detectives who participated in the investigation of the murders of Curtis and Officer Jeffrey Kocab by Dontae Morris on June 29, 2010. There is no indication in the court documents that Eric Houston was linked to the use of Curtis' identity, or the identities of any other fellow officers, in tax refund fraud.

Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor fired Eric Houston last month amid reports he was the subject of a federal grand jury investigation. Until Friday, the details of the investigation had been kept hidden.

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said she could not comment on the information in the affidavit, other than to say, “The department took swift action and terminated both of” the Houstons.

Bright, who retired two months ago, could not be reached for comment.

Rita Girven's lawyer, Ralph Fernandez, said he had no comment because of the ongoing federal investigation.

Eric Houston's lawyer, Wade Whidden, likewise said he had no comment.

LaJoyce Houston was fired from the department after her arrest in October on food stamp fraud charges. Authorities say she used the food stamp benefits card of a close family friend, Rita Girven, to purchase groceries. LaJoyce Houston is also accused of giving the benefits card to her brother-in-law, who bought groceries while Girven was jailed for theft charges.

The search warrant affidavit, along with evidence released earlier this week in LaJoyce Houston's criminal prosecution, paint a picture of an unusually close relationship between the police couple and Girven, who was a registered police informant and convicted thief. Girven formed a close bond with the Houstons, who adopted one of her children, gave her money, socialized and shopped with her.

Investigators even reported Girven referring to Eric Houston as “daddy” in one recorded phone conversation.

As a homicide detective, Eric Houston has access to a number of law-enforcement databases that include personal identifying information. Authorities use the databases for everything from drivers license checks during traffic stops to confirming the identity of criminal suspects.

According to the search warrant affidavit, 4,600 people whom Eric Houston ran through police databases in a three-year period later had fake federal tax returns filed in their names.

In about 40 cases, the affidavit says, Eric Houston and Bright ran the same name through the databases.

The affidavit describes one identity theft victim as a person whose initials are D.A., who died in March 5, 2013, of an overdose that was investigated by Houston. A tax refund obtained from D.A.'s bogus return was deposited onto a prepaid debit card linked to Girven, the affidavit states.

Investigators searching Girven's home found a sticky note with D.A.'s name, birth date and Social Security number.

Bright ran D.A.'s profile through a police database five times on March 6 and 7, 2013, according to the affidavit. A handwriting analysis of the sticky note found common characteristics with Bright's handwriting; a more detailed analysis is pending.

The tax return that generated that refund was filed from an Internet address used for the filing of 97 other tax returns from March to August of 2013. The returns claimed a total of nearly $900,000 in refunds, according to the affidavit.

Investigators subpoenaed the Houstons' personal banking records. The affidavit describes several cash deposits made into a joint checking account from automated teller machines. For example, on March 4, 2011, there were three cash deposits made at an ATM in Brandon for $1,800, $200 and $800, for a total of $2,800. And on March 6 and 12, 2011, a total of 10 cash deposits totaling $7,890 were made at automated tellers.

The affidavit says LaJoyce Houston's post-tax pay of about $3,700 a month, was deposited directly into the same account.

Investigators linked LaJoyce Houston to one of the fraudulent tax refunds deposited onto one of Girven's debit cards.

That refund for $9,615 was made in the name of someone with the initials G.S, according to the affidavit. Investigators determined that LaJoyce Houston had run G.S.'s name through a law enforcement database about three weeks before the fraudulent return was filed.

G.S. had never had a police report written by Tampa police in which she was listed as a victim, witness or defendant.

Girven called LaJoyce Houston about 35 times from jail in less than two months, according to an investigation report released earlier this week. A vehicle purchased in 2011 was co-registered to Girven and LaJoyce Houston's father, the affidavit states.

The affidavit says Bright, who worked at the front desk of the police department's District Three, also was friends with Girven, who frequently visited her at work. Bright had access to a computer at work and ran 13,000 database inquiries in one year, “which is far more than what would be expected in the course of her normal duties,” the affidavit states.

The affidavit describes numerous phone conversations between Girven and the Houstons when Girven was behind bars.

In the conversation where Girven was heard calling Houston “daddy,'' she asked him to order a jail care package for her. She also told him he should talk to a judge for her. Houston replied that he “would see what stuff we can do,” the affidavit states.

In another conversation, Girven called Eric Houston at home and they talked about whether Girven had information about an open murder investigation, according to the affidavit. Girven also told Houston that she had to use all of her food stamp funds before the next day or they would be forfeited.

The investigation began in September 2011 when Tampa Police Det. Sharla Canfield was told by an informant about numerous prepaid debit cards being sent to Girven's address, according to the affidavit.

Canfield traced debit cards sent to Girven's address and loaded with more than $146,000 in bogus refunds issued to deceased individuals. Police also obtained video evidence of Girven trying to use at least one card at an ATM to withdraw cash. Girven was arrested in February 2012 on identity theft charges, and she later “admitted that she had been filing fraudulent income tax returns and was scared of going to prison,'' the affidavit states.

After Girven was released, 15 fraudulent tax returns were filed from her Internet address, according to the affidavit.

When police searched her home after that, they found evidence of tax fraud, including prepaid debit cards and identifying information for more than 200 people, according to the court document.

Girvens had no reported income and received federal housing and food stamp benefits. Yet she bought a 2011 Huundai Sonata GLS in May 2013, according to the affidavit.

After Eric Houston was fired, investigators searched his unmarked police vehicle. Inside they found two envelopes.

One was empty and addressed to “Mr. Mad” at the Houstons' address. Girven was the sender, with the Falkenburg Road Jail as the return address.

Another sealed envelope was tucked inside the driver's side sun visor, addressed to Girven at the jail The return address was fictional.

Inside was a hand-written note: “I'm not mad at you. This thing just has to get finished so that nobody else has problems. Be safe.” It was signed, “Crazy House Driver.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Ralph Fernandez was LaJoyce Houston's lawyer. Ralph Fernandez represents Rita Girven.

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Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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