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Fort Bend County, At Large
By Cheryl Skinner

This column expresses the personal opinions/views of the writer. If you would like to express your opinions/views regarding the column, write a SIGNED letter to the editor. Name can be withheld by request with a valid day time phone number.


The gift

Fort Bend County officials are looking into an issue that has made the news for a week. Should the Fort Bend County deputies be allowed to keep a $1,000 check from a so-called anonymous benefactor?

First of all, the benefactor is not totally anonymous. Sheriff Milton Wright apparently knows who he or she is and it is likely that some of the sheriff’s command staff by now knows who the benefactor is. So, in that case, did the sheriff violate Sec. 36.07 of the Texas Penal Code?

Here is that portion of the Texas Penal Code:

Sec. 36.07. ACCEPTANCE OF HONORARIUM. (a) A public servant commits an offense if the public servant solicits, accepts, or agrees to accept an honorarium in consideration for services that the public servant would not have been requested to provide but for the public servant’s official position or duties.

As anyone who knows me is aware, I am proudly the wife of a retired career law enforcement officer who gave 32 years of his adult life to the profession.

Through the years, a number of grateful people attempted to give my husband a “reward” for doing the job he was hired to do and every time he declined the gift, steadfastly maintaining he was paid to do that job and a simple thank you was all that he could accept.

I was always proud of him for maintaining the high ethics that we expect from law enforcement. However, one time, when our children were very small and finances were extremely tight, a businessman attempted to give him about $100 worth of meat from his market after he apprehended several burglary suspects in the act.

The meat, sausage, steaks, and other fine cuts would have certainly been put to great use. However, when the gift was delivered to our home with a note of gratitude, I returned it at his direction.

The point is not whether these deputies deserved a monetary thank you. Most of the law enforcement officers in Fort Bend County are fine individuals who put their lives on the line every day to protect the community they serve. Certainly they deserve all of the gratitude the community can muster.

The point of the controversy is whether the law was broken and if the sheriff broke the law, or just flat-out ignored the law, when he accepted the huge sum on behalf of the deputies.

I don’t envy our public officials who have vowed to follow this through and get a legal opinion on the issue.

If they deem this an illegal gift, it is likely that they will be perceived as less than supportive of law enforcement and needless to say the deputy’s morale will plunge if the gift has to be returned.

If they deem it legal, a lot of folks will think they are allowing the sheriff to violate the very laws he has promised to uphold. And, the public’s trust will be compromised at a time when there is already a basic mistrust of the “system.”

It is a no win situation.

I am somewhat perplexed because this all could have been handled in the right way and there would have been no questions, no controversy and certainly no disappointment on the part of the deputies.

Milton should have taken the matter before Fort Bend County Commissioners for official approval. Had he done so, the County Attorney’s representative, who sits in court and oversees such issues, could have and would have said “yes, you can” or “no you can’t” and that would have been the end of it.

There is no doubt that the donor could have, without legal questions, given the quarter of a million dollars to the department for upgrading equipment, education or other improvements. He or she could have also given the 100 Club the funds to help provide education and equipment for officers or funds to help the families of those who die in the line of duty.

That kind of a donation is done every day and there is no question it is legal.

A total of 86% on Channel 13 TV website poll say the deputies should be allowed to keep the gift.

Local blogs seem to be leaning toward not keeping the gift and the Houston Chronicle “comments” section seems to favor a full investigation and return of the money to the donor.

In actuality it doesn’t really make a bit of difference if you or I think the deputies deserve the gift. The laws in this state were enacted to protect all of us from any form of graft and corruption, and those laws, whether you like them or not, should be followed to the letter.

I think one blogger put it about as eloquently as any could:

“The question here is not whether the officers deserve reward or recognition. These officers put their lives on the line every day and deserve not only our appreciation but also compensation. The philosophy of most departments in the country is that even accepting a free cup of coffee can compromise the integrity of the department or an officer. This seems to be an innocent gift of appreciation, but the Sheriff should have expected controversy. Now the law will be tested to see if it is legal.”

I agree.


Contact skinnerc1@tconline.net, if you would like to express your opinions/views regarding the column. Write a SIGNED letter to the editor with valid day time phone number--name can be withheld by request.

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   Last Update:January 30, 2009