HOUSTON (AP) -- A former longtime Houston-area law enforcement official and two of his staff members pleaded guilty Thursday to accepting thousands of dollars in bribes from businesses to run illegal background checks through a national crime database, or knowing about the scheme but not reporting it.
Former Harris County Precinct One Constable Jack Abercia, his former chief lieutenant, Weldon Kenneth Wiener, and Abercia's former office chief, Michael Butler, were charged last year in a 13-count indictment after an investigation by the FBI, Houston police and the Texas Rangers.
The three men had initially pleaded not guilty.
But during a federal court hearing Thursday, Abercia pleaded guilty to 11 counts of exceeding authorized computer access. Butler and Wiener each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy. The guilty pleas came as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors.
Each defendant faces up to five years in prison. But prosecutors are recommending probation for each individual.
"These individuals had no prior criminal records," said Douglas O'Brien, Wiener's attorney. "We're all in agreement that probation would be the appropriate sentence."
In an unusual move, all three defendants asked U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison to immediately proceed with sentencing. Typically in federal court, after a guilty plea or a conviction at trial, sentencing doesn't take place until several months later as a presentencing report is prepared and used by the judge to determine a sentence.
In asking for immediate sentencing, Abercia's attorney, Rusty Hardin, said his client, who is 79, is battling colon cancer and is currently taking 14 prescribed medications. Abercia also uses a walker.
But Ellison said he was not comfortable proceeding without a presentencing report and would take the request under advisement. In a court order issued later Thursday, Ellison scheduled sentencing for Nov. 26.
"When we have misconduct by public officials, it has an ... effect that is broader than most cases," Ellison said.
In Texas, constables are law enforcement officers who are elected to four-year terms. Constables and their deputies can make arrests, serve civil suit notices and subpoenas, and execute arrest warrants. Abercia had been a constable for nearly 21 years.
Federal prosecutor Michael Wynne said during the hearing that on several occasions in November 2011, a confidential source who was working with authorities paid Abercia $3,000 to run background checks on prospective employees for a power washing company by using the National Crime Information Center database. Use of the database, which is operated by the FBI, is restricted to genuine law enforcement purposes. Prosecutors said that in total, Abercia received $9,000.
Wynne said Abercia had wanted to use the bribes to help pay for putting an elevator in his home. It was never installed.
Wiener received a portion of the bribes while Butler knew of the bribes but did not report them, Wynne said.
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