Investigation Sparks Concerns Over Court-Ordered Payments in Hidalgo Co.
EDINBURG – Probationers in Hidalgo County are concerned amid an ongoing investigation into the Hidalgo County Adult Probation Office.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS spoke to one man who said he gave the sheriff's office a sworn statement about giving cash to a now terminated probation officer. He said sheriff's investigators told him not to do an on-camera with us.
But it's not just the probationers directly involved in the investigation who are upset. Chris Zapata said he’s been in probation several times.
He said he was shocked to see his former probation officer, Carlos De La Fuente, on the news after his arraignment Monday.
De La Fuente is charged with abuse of official capacity.
“I was like wait, what? That's crazy,” Zapata said.
A probable cause affidavit alleges De La Fuente took cash payments from probationers in exchange for "lowering total fees that were owed" or so that probationers "could be discharged without a balance remaining."
The document states the former probation officer collected a total of $6,330.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS also spoke to De La Fuente’s attorney, Orlando Jimenez.
“Nowhere in there does it say that Carlos pocketed the money, that there was any bribery with regard to the individuals,” he said.
Jimenez said it's common practice for probation officers to take payments from probationers, then pass the money on to the collections office.
“I think it's just an unfortunate misunderstanding. And if there's more than one incident, then it's several misunderstandings for each incident,” he said.
The director of the adult probation office, Arnold Patrick, said it is in no way common practice for probation officers to handle money.
Patrick said all employees know that taking payments is against the rules.
Zapata recalled handing cash over to De La Fuente years ago for probation fees.
“I was late a couple months and he said anything I could come up with, just to hand it to him and I'd be alright,” he said. “These people – I feel like are the ones trying to help us turn our lives around. So, when I saw that, I don't know it just brought... disappointment.”
The sheriff's office is referring to the probe as a bribery and theft investigation.
Only De La Fuente is charged with a crime so far. One other probation officer was let go amid the investigation.
Patrick said all probation officers are aware the only accepted way for payments to be made is through the collections office.
He said he'll be making changes to the employee handbook and code of ethics to make sure that fact is even more clear.