Federal funds for district attorney dwindling

D.A. could quit prosecuting federal cases

Matthew Smith, Good Morning El Paso Weekend Anchor / Reporter
POSTED: 05:36 PM MDT Apr 19, 2013 
EL PASO, Texas -

County resources are regularly used to prosecute federal crimes in border towns. On average, more than 250 such cases fall onto the plate of El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza, however, he doesn't believe the taxpayers are getting a fair shake.

"El Pasoans have a right to object when we're paying for a program that is not our responsibility," said Esparza.

He's talking about the Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative. Created in 2000, it repays district attorneys and county attorneys that prosecute federal crimes.

At its peak the initiative paid out $30 million to district attorneys' offices throughout Texas, California, and New Mexico. In recent years, the funds repaid have dwindled.

In 2011 the U.S. government paid border communities $23 million. By 2012, the number had fallen to $10 million. According to federal lobbyists working for El Paso County, the number on the line this year has been reduced to $5 million.

"When the program was fully funded it was something like $30 million," said Esparza. "That wasn't enough. So, something like $5 million really will require me to decide whether or not they're asking too much of El Paso County."

Esparza declined to say he would leave the program, but he said the option would be on the table. He said the only bargaining tool border district attorneys have is to refuse to take on cases.

He made that move in 2000, telling the U.S. Attorney's Office he wouldn't prosecute cases anymore unless his office was repaid. It led to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison passing a $12 million rider to a military construction bill. Esparza never quit taking on the cases with the last minute move, asked whether he'd do it again he said he's not sure.

"It's hard to forecast the tipping point in these investigations," said Esparza.

In 2008 Esparza's office was repaid for 412 cases. It's fluctuated to more than 450, but as low as 50. Members of his office claim that the lower numbers have been due to more stringent repayment guidelines, stating they've prosecuted a similar number of cases regardless of the numbers.

ABC-7 reached out to the Department of Justice's public affairs officer for the West Texas region to determine what kind of effect it would have if Esparza pulled the plug on the project. After numerous telephone calls, and email requests they have yet to give a comment.