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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
Crime & Courts

Wife’s fraud arrest spurs probe of Tampa detective

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Published:   |   Updated: May 19, 2014 at 08:31 PM

— When La Joyce Houston used an inmate’s food stamp card to buy groceries, her husband, Eric Houston , put the food in bags.

Then a Tampa police sergeant, La Joyce Houston was later arrested on fraud charges and fired from her job with the department in October.

Her husband, Eric Houston, was fired last month as a Tampa police detective after authorities announced he was the target of a separate federal grand jury investigation, which grew out of the investigation into the actions of his wife, who is facing charges of welfare fraud and grand theft in state court.

According to documents released Monday in La Joyce Houston’s case, the investigation began when investigators were monitoring jail telephone calls of inmate Rita Girvin, who spoke to La Joyce Houston about 35 times in less than two months. At one point, according to an investigation report, La Joyce Houston used a fake name and Girvin’s cellphone to call a Hillsborough County sheriff’s detective for information on a pending court appearance for Girvin.

The Houstons were long-time friends with Girvin, according to the documents. The Houston’s adopted and were raising Girvin’s child.

While Girvin was in jail on an unrelated case, La Joyce Houston used Girvin’s food stamp card and also gave it to her brother-in-law, who used it to buy groceries for his family, according to the investigation reports.

Detectives investigating Girvin had been told by an informant that she was involved with identity theft and tax fraud, according to an investigation report.

Investigators determined that while Girvin was behind bars, her food stamp card was being used for purchases. When investigators obtained surveillance video of the purchases, they saw La Joyce Houston using the card, according to the investigation report. Her husband accompanied her but did not appear to be using the card.

Michael Grill, who is married to La Joyce Houston’s sister, gave a statement under a grant of immunity, according to a transcript of that interview. Grill said La Joyce Houston gave him the card and the PIN number, and he used it three times to buy a total of about $300 worth of groceries. He said he thought Girvin was just giving it to him to use, as he had helped her out over the years.

Grill said Eric Houston didn’t know about him using the card. He said he assumed Eric Houston wouldn’t have used the card “just knowing Eric and the way he is.”

Asked to elaborate, he said, “For anybody that knows him, he’s just a quiet guy and he, you know, just keeps his head down and minds his business.”

Girvin also implicated another Tampa police officer, Rob Fannin, but Fannin denied using Girvin’s food stamp card or doing anything inappropriate, according to a transcript of an interview investigators did with him. He said he did purchase a care package for her in jail after she called him for help. He said he used his own money and could document that, to pay $25.33 for the package.

He said Girvin has helped his squad many times over the years, helping them put between 30 and 50 people in prison. Fannin said Girvin called him one night from jail weeping and saying she was starving.

“When she called me, I thought about all the stuff she’s helped me out with and then she just — you know, she hit my Christianity side of me, you know, and I felt bad for her, so I sent it,” Fannin told investigators, according to the transcript.

Tampa Police Department spokeswoman Laura McElroy said the allegations against Fannin were investigated and found to be unsubstantiated.

“We investigated every use of Girvin’s (food stamp) card, and La Joyce Houston was the only TPD employee involved with a transaction,” she said.

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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