Texas judge accused of using money collected from traffic fines to pay his credit card bills

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — A south Texas municipal judge was arrested Thursday and accused of using traffic fines paid by those who appeared before him to pay his personal credit card.

La Joya Municipal Court Judge Joe Henry Garza, 55, was arraigned and pleaded not guilty Thursday afternoon on the third-degree felony charge of theft by a public servant. He was in the process of being released on $10,000 bond later Thursday.

"We believe the gentleman is not guilty," said Richard Alamia, Garza's attorney. "He's not the receiver of the money that comes into the municipality."

An internal city audit earlier this year found discrepancies in fines collected by Garza's court, and the case was turned over to the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office, said La Joya city administrator Mike Alaniz.

"I have the utmost respect for Judge Garza," Alaniz said. "It's just unfortunate this was happening."

The sheriff's public integrity unit found three instances in which people who paid traffic fines with money orders in Garza's court had their money later used to pay Garza's personal credit card, according to a probable cause affidavit.

Alamia, who said he had not seen the affidavit, said it must have been some sort of mistake and if money was missing it was likely someone else in the office.

Sheriff's investigators got involved after the audit found $6,500 was missing. La Joya is about 15 miles west of McAllen.

Three people told investigators they bought money orders to pay traffic fines in Garza's court. Their money order stubs allowed investigators to trace their use and find that Garza used at least $2,200 in money orders to pay his credit card, according to the affidavit.

Sheriff Lupe Trevino said most of cases involved Mexican nationals without driver's licenses. Garza would assess a fine and tell them to pay it in cash or with a money order.