Felony charge against Jefferson County Sheriff thrown out in Chambers County

Felony charge against Jefferson County Sheriff thrown out in Chambers County

A felony indictment of tampering with a governmental record against Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens was dismissed following a hearing in the 344th Judicial District Court on Thursday, Feb. 22.

According to a motion to quash filed by Stephens’ attorneys, the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, which was prosecuting the felony charge along with two misdemeanor charges of accepting cash contributions in violation of the Texas Election Code, exceeded its constitutional authority by presenting the information to a Chambers County grand jury.

“The only proper venue for prosecuting the ‘tampering with a governmental record’ charge as alleged in this cause is Jefferson County,” reads the motion. “The only governmental entity with proper prosecutorial authority over the ‘tampering with a governmental record’ charge as alleged in this cause is the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office. The only grand jury that can be properly convened to hear the ‘tampering with a governmental record’ charge as alleged in this cause is the Jefferson County Grand Jury.”

Following arguments from both prosecution and defense before Judge Randy McDonald, McDonald ruled in favor of Stephens and quashed the felony charge, according to Stephens’ attorney’s office. A signed order has not been filed with the Chambers County District Clerk as of publication. Stephens still faces the two misdemeanor charges in Chambers County, but it will be up to the Jefferson District Attorney’s Office whether Stephens will face the felony charge in Jefferson County.

Previous reporting:

Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Friday, April 27, 2018, that a grand jury issued indictments against three candidates from the 2016 Jefferson County sheriff’s race for criminal violations for fraud related to campaign contributions in the primary or general election.

A grand jury in Chambers County indicted 52-year-old Zena Collins Stephens on one count of tampering with a government record, a state jail felony, and two counts of accepting cash contributions exceeding $100, class A misdemeanors. Stephens was elected sheriff of Jefferson County in November 2016.

The grand jury also indicted 67-year-old Ray Elliott Beck on one count of accepting a cash contribution exceeding $100 and one count of failure to return a political contribution, both class A misdemeanors.

In addition, 59-year-old Joseph Sterling Stevenson was indicted on one count of accepting a cash contribution exceeding $100, a class A misdemeanor.   

"Our election laws were established to protect the right of Texans to govern themselves through their elected representatives and to ensure fair and transparent elections, and it is the responsibility of the attorney general to enforce those protections,” Attorney General Paxton said. “No one is above the law. The conduct of the people indicted by the grand jury is illegal and erodes the public trust. Working with local and state law enforcement, my office intends to hold them accountable.”

The Texas Rangers and Attorney General Paxton’s office, with the cooperation and assistance of the Chambers County District Attorney’s Office, are working together on the investigation and prosecution of all the charges. The case initially came to the attention of state law enforcement officials when the offenses were discovered during an unrelated federal investigation and forwarded to the Texas Rangers for further investigation.

In response to the indictments, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office issued a brief statement saying that it is "aware of the indictments against Sheriff Stephens" and that they are "being handled through the proper channels."

"The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office will continue to operate as usual, providing dedicated service and protection to the citizens of our county," the statement says. "Any questions related to the indictment against Sheriff Stephens should be directed to the investigating agency."

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