Suspended Hill County Sheriff Mike Cox pleaded guilty Thursday to a felony records tampering charge for his role in an officer-licensing scheme in which two of his former top-ranking officers also were implicated.
Cox’s guilty plea comes after he vowed to fight the charges against him and pledged to return to his duties as sheriff.
Cox, 39, pleaded guilty to one count of tampering with governmental records and was sentenced to deferred felony probation for four years. As part of the plea agreement with special prosecutor David Deaconson, Cox also surrendered his law enforcement license and resigned from office.
Visiting Judge James Morgan also fined Cox $3,000 and ordered him to perform 80 hours of community service. Deaconson dismissed one count of tampering with governmental records, one count of abuse of official capacity and one count of breach of computer security, all state-jail felonies punishable by up to two years behind bars.
Cox pleaded guilty to getting improper help from an office staff member to pass his state peace officer’s certification.
“My goal was to ensure justice was done, and that really was to ensure that he would no longer be sheriff for what he did,” Deaconson said. “Whether he pleaded guilty to two counts or one count or three counts, the end result was the same. A nonnegotiable term was that he will never be a peace officer again and immediately resign.”
Cox, who became sheriff in January 2013, declined comment after his guilty plea.
His attorney, Pete Schulte, said Cox accepted responsibility for what he did and is ready to move on.
“Looking at the circumstances, especially after seeing what (former Chief Deputy) Mark Wilson and the young ladies at the sheriff’s office testified to in front of the grand jury, we believe that things were happening under the sheriff’s watch, not necessarily with his knowledge, but he is ultimately responsible.
“So he did the right thing. He was not going to plead guilty to anything he did not do, so it wound up being one count and he is ready to move on and he wishes everyone the best and the best for the citizens of Hill County.”
Hill County Commissioner Larry Wright said commissioners will meet soon in emergency session to discuss the appointment of a new sheriff.
Wes Collins has been acting sheriff since Cox was suspended and removed from office by court order following his indictment.
Cox was charged with misusing his office by coercing an employee to prepare papers and to assist him with a test he was taking for college criminal justice courses.
According to the four-count indictment against Cox, he was accused of “requesting or directing” a sheriff’s office employee to prepare papers for him in February 2014, March 2014, April 2014, September 2014 and December 2014 for a college criminal justice class he was taking.
Cox also got the employee to help him take a test in November 2014 and to prepare a PowerPoint presentation in December 2014, the indictment alleged.
The second count charged the sheriff with using the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement data distribution system to obtain a telecommunicator’s license that he reportedly knew to be fraudulent.
The final count alleged that Cox accessed the TCOLE database and, as an authorized test proctor, submitted his allegedly falsified state licensing exam.
Other officers charged
Last month, Wilson, Cox’s former chief deputy, pleaded guilty to four counts of tampering with governmental records, and former Capt. Leroy Rodriguez pleaded guilty to three counts of tampering with governmental records, state-jail felony charges stemming from the TCOLE investigation.
Morgan sentenced both to deferred probation for three years and ordered them to surrender their law enforcement certification and licenses.
The men also were fined $3,000 and agreed to testify against Cox if he had gone to trial.
Rodriguez, 35, was charged with providing his personal username and password to jailer Bryan Winget or others, who reportedly completed a portion of the basic county jailer’s certification course in Rodriguez’s name. He also was charged with submitting false records to the TCOLE, the state agency charged with training and licensing peace officers.
Winget, 27, also was arrested in April on one count of breach of computer security. But he was not indicted because he merely was doing what his superiors ordered him to do, Deaconson has said.
Wilson, 61, was charged with submitting notarized county jailer appointment applications without an original signature of the TCOLE chief administrator “with the intent that it be taken as a genuine governmental record containing accurate and truthful information.”