Sheriff’s indictment stings county voters

Published 5:01 pm Tuesday, May 8, 2018


Three of four candidates for Jefferson County sheriff in 2016 may have failed the simplest of “sniff” tests for campaign contributions, which should alarm every voter with right intentions. All three have been indicted.

They include Sheriff Zena Stephens, a law enforcement veteran who made news in that election as the state’s first elected black female sheriff and the country’s second. Now she’s the first indicted black female sheriff.

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That’s particularly troubling because Stephens exudes goodwill in most corners of this county, no matter one’s politics. It was heartbreaking to see the sheriff’s booking photo in Chambers County, offering a wan smile as she held aloft the numbers that identified her as a prisoner.

An indictment in itself is well short of proving guilt. It’s early in the process. We hope this was a mistake.

But facts as revealed in what started as a federal case are troubling. Stephens and two other candidates — Deputy Joe “QB” Stevenson, a Democrat, and former Beaumont Police Lt. Ray Beck, a Republican — all stand accused of taking cash contributions from Larry Tillery, a car dealer under federal investigation for running an illegal sports gambling ring. The indictments cut across racial, gender and party lines.

The indictment says they took cash from Tillery — a total of $6,000 for Stephens; $5,000 for Beck; $1,000 for Stevenson — while the limit for such contributions from a single contributor is $100.

Stephens is also accused of recording the $5,000 contribution under a column for contributions under $50. The case against her suggests she did that “with intent to defraud or harm” citizens.

Stephens’ attorney suggested she had no criminal intent but was accused of a “technical” violation of what he characterized as “the lengthy and complex election code.” That was the best he could offer that day — his client was too simple to understand the law.

In fact, any violation of the election code might be characterized as “technical,” especially if you haven’t studied it, inexcusable in itself, or intend to circumvent it. Candidates for law enforcement positions ought to know the law at least as much if not more thoroughly than other candidates. After all, they make the arrests.

The “didn’t-know-the-law” excuse is particularly thin when it comes to a high-ranking law enforcement officer. Stephens, who holds a bachelor’s in political science, touts in her office biography her long experience, professional standards and ethics. She has always demanded accountability.

Stephens has shown all the signs of being an active and caring sheriff since taking office. That’s why this indictment stings so much.

Vidor Police Chief Rod Carroll, the lone candidate who wasn’t indicted, said he’s praying for the others.

If these charges prove true, he and we should pray for us all.