The Travis County Tax Office is currently being investigated for fraud in what the state has called a “big organized scheme.”
Last Friday, Texas Department of Public Safety officials arrived with search warrants at the county tax office and arrested seven people, four of them employees, from both the main office and all four satellite locations. Officials also seized computer hard drives, cell phones, a slew of documents—and $72,000 in cash.
Charges included bribery, forgery, and organized crime. Three employees were charged with third-degree felonies, according to jail records.
The multi-agency investigation was initiated by a county audit, which showed alarming discrepancies related to vehicle title transfers. The audit focused on suspect transactions between the county and Auto Title Service, a third-party company contracted to handle vehicle registrations and title services. The irregularities seemingly pointed to an effort to minimize and evade taxes, and as officials began investigating further, they found that county employees were being bribed into helping the scheme.
In addition to other violations, the ploy involved employees inputting an artificially low purchase price on a vehicle so that the taxes would be lower. DPS Regional Commander Freeman Martin explained how the scheme entailed bribery in exchange for titles that should not have been approved.
“If you have an employee that doesn’t have integrity and is taking bribes, they can pass stamped documents and sign titles that should not be assigned,” Martin said.
In 2015, Auto Title Service was actually suspended for six months by the state after numerous suspect transactions surfaced. After their reinstatement, they simply resumed fraudulent practices through a different type of transaction.
According to the audit, Travis County could owe the state more than $1 million in unremitted taxes from the fraudulent activities.
The county’s Tax Assessor-Collector, Bruce Elfant, briefed the commissioners court Tuesday morning on the status of the ongoing investigation.
“First of all I want you and everyone in Travis County to know that I am angry and sickened to know that this discussion is even necessary,” he said. “I fully expect that I will be judged by my response to this abhorrent situation, and I promise to do everything I am able to restore the public’s trust in the Travis County Tax Office.”
Roger Falk with the Travis County Taxpayers Union told Fox 7 Austin that this ordeal was a crisis in oversight.
“I have to wonder why a key function like this isn’t locked down to where there isn’t any latitude to have these kinds of failures,” he stated. “I also question what are the qualifications of this tax-assessor that we have? Has he really got the accounting and management skills to do the oversight?”
All Travis County satellite tax offices have been closed until further notice.