Ex-Texas Sheriff Charged With Conspiracy

A scandal-plagued former sheriff has been charged with leading a criminal enterprise while in office that included extortion, drug trafficking (search) and witness tampering, federal prosecutors announced Thursday.

The indictment accuses former Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu (search) of receiving payments from drug traffickers in exchange for releasing sensitive law enforcement during his four years in office starting in 2001. He also is accused of using his official powers to protect and assist the drug traffickers.

"It is a blow to honest law enforcement when one of its own is accused of corrupting his office and abusing the public's trust," FBI (search) Agent Patrick A. Patterson said.

Cantu was arrested Wednesday, and will remain in jail until his arraignment Monday.

"He thinks that this is a witch hunt," Cantu's attorney, Alberto Pullen, said Thursday. "There is just not enough evidence to convict him of all the charges."

Four others were named in the indictment, including two who worked with Cantu at the sheriff's department in Cameron County, located on the border with Mexico.

Cantu is charged with eight counts, including conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana, extortion, money laundering, obstruction and being a member of a criminal enterprise engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity. The other men face similar charges.

Cantu's term was marked by allegations of corruption, along with a series of jail escapes and missing inmate funds.

He was indicted last year on charges he misused authority by rallying support for his re-election bid during a mandatory jailhouse meeting. A judge dismissed the charge in March.

Cantu, a Democrat, lost the March 2004 primary election. He had been hoping to rejoin law enforcement as a deputy constable, but county commissioners postponed a vote on the appointment last week.

The extortion, money laundering and racketeering charges carry a maximum punishment of 20 years in federal prison. The obstruction charge carries a maximum sentence of five years, and the drug charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.