7 arrested in Travis Co. Tax-Assessor Collector's office fraud scheme

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"This is something we don't tolerate.  This is taxpayer money.  We're government employees.  This is a priority for us at the department," said DPS Regional Commander Freeman Martin.  

Seven arrests: charges like forgery, organized crime, bribery.

Four of these people you may have dealt with...they're government employees working for the Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector's office.

"There's a lot of things about this investigation we can't talk about.  This is an ongoing investigation that still has to be prosecuted," Freeman said.  

Martin joined DMV Executive Director Whitney Brewster and Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore at a press conference Monday morning about the multi-agency fraud investigation called "Operation Even Trade."

Martin says the investigation launched in March at the request of the D.A.

"Say somebody purchases a vehicle.  When you go to the Tax-Assessor Collector's office, you pay taxes on the amount of that vehicle.  So there's a potential there for corruption," Martin said.

According to court paperwork, 43-year-old Shell Kenneth Prieto-Reese and 57-year-old Cathy Lynn Wilson worked together at the Precinct 1 tax office on Hefflin Lane.  43-year-old Susie Alvarez Araujo and 35-year-old Steven Hernandez worked at Precinct 2 in Pflugerville.  

The employees are accused of entering false values on title form applications, resulting in the reduction of sales tax sent to the state.

On surveillance video, 41-year-old Hipolita Tiquet De Dios is seen discretely putting a $20 bill in the opening of Prieto-Reese's vehicle in the tax office parking lot along with a title transfer notification form.

DPS investigators also reported seeing Wilson and Prieto-Reese hiding money from their cash drawers and storing it in filing cabinets next to their desks.  

Wilson's husband, 61-year-old Cecil Leary Jr. was seen being let into the office and walking out with a bag of stolen coins.

71-year-old Eulalio Hernandez is also charged with forgery regarding a vehicle transfer.

DPS says during the 2 and a half month investigation they conducted 4 search warrants.

"Those search warrants resulted in the seizure of computer hard drives, cell phones and many, many documents," Martin said.

DPS also seized $72,000.

Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant sent Fox 7 this statement:

"I want to thank the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), Criminal Investigation Division, the District Attorney's office, and the Travis County Auditor for their part in rooting out a problem that has plagued the Motor Vehicle Division of the Travis County tax office. Since Friday afternoon after I was notified of the investigation, with the help of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, we have been able to implement contingency plans to make certain the main tax office was up and running Monday morning and open for business. The satellite tax offices will remain closed until further notice. I encourage any Travis County resident looking to renew vehicle registrations to do so via our online portal or at any of the several HEB locations throughout Travis County.  Additionally, it is my intention to brief the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, May 22nd at 9:30 am. There I will be able to provide details on the contingency plans that we have put in place and what the next steps are for the tax office moving forward. Lastly, I also want to thank Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, and the executive team at Travis County for their assistance these past several days. Because of their all-hands-on-deck approach, we have been able to accomplish a lot in a short period of time."