There doesn’t seem to be much exceptional about Cameron County, the southernmost county in Texas. Its population in the 2010 census was at about 400,000. There are about 100 juveniles in the custody of the county’s juvenile justice department, based in Brownsville. But that county may have set a record likely to stand for some time: the amount its juvenile department spent on fajitas over the past nine years — well over $1.25 million.
What makes that sum even more impressive, but also more puzzling, is that menu items for all county juvenile justice departments are set by the state, and fajitas were never on the menu during that period. Yet when records of county expenditures and auditor’s reports were recently checked, it became apparent that county taxpayers had indeed footed the bill for $1,251,578 worth of the sizzling Tex-Mex treats.
Until recently, Cameron County was unaware of this puzzling situation, but an explanation of how it arose began to appear on Aug. 7 this year. On that day, a medical appointment prevented Gilberto Escaramilla from coming to his job at the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department. By an unfortunate coincidence for Mr. Escaramilla, that was also the day a driver for Labatt Food Service in nearby Harlingen, the department’s regular meat supplier, tried to deliver 800 pounds of fajitas to Mr. Escaramilla’s place of employment.
Other staffers insisted the driver must be mistaken, since juvenile justice offenders were not served fajitas, in Cameron County or anywhere else in Texas. Still, the driver maintained in no uncertain terms that he had often delivered fajitas before, and not just recently, but going back as far as nine years previously.
After some head-scratching, management decided to discharge Mr. Escaramilla the next day; the day after that, police searched his home and found refrigerators teeming with fajitas. He was promptly arrested and charged with a felony for trying to get the county to pay for the 800 pounds of fajitas, with an estimated value of between $2,500 and $30,000.
But county law enforcers soon discovered on questioning Escaramilla that he had been running his own food supply business for nine years, with county taxpayers paying for his inventory. The investigation then shifted to getting a handle on the size of Escaramilla’ plunderings, and identifying his customers.
The district attorney was soon telling a local newspaper that as soon as Escaramilla placed a food order for the county juvenile justice department, he would often have sold off the order to other buyers before it was even delivered. When an order arrived, he’d intercept it and safely stash the fajitas the county didn’t realize had been ordered in its name, and using its funds. The D.A. was quoted as saying the operation called to mind “a Saturday Night Live skit.”
On Oct. 10, Escaramilla was re-arrested, this time charged with first-degree felony theft for the full value of the fajitas he had diverted. Somewhat obviously, the district attorney said Escaramilla’s food hijacking scheme showed a “total failure” in the county’s ability to detect and control fraudulent transactions in its spending. Even less surprisingly, the county’s juvenile justice department announced a review of its purchasing and accountability policies.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.