AUSTIN (KXAN) -- While most people are familiar with unclaimed property that one can search and access from the Texas Comptroller’s website, a KXAN Investigation discovered $22 million that actually belongs to Texans are sitting in state coffers and little is being done to make sure that money gets to its rightful owner.
The money comes from restitution payments ordered in criminal cases from courts across the state. If someone is arrested and charged for committing a crime against you, anything from breaking into your house or crashing into your car while driving drunk, chances are, the court will require the criminal to pay you money for damages or injuries you may have. But, many crime victims are never called to appear in court and are unaware they have money coming to them. State law requires the courts to notify you, but in some cases that person may never see the money.
KXAN obtained a list of crime victims Travis County says it can't find to give them their money. However, we found it's pretty easy.
Tracking Down the Victims
Ian Pirie still has pain from a broken jaw he suffered in an assault 13 years ago. In 2005, the court ordered his attacker to pay him more than $7,000 in damages. The Travis County Probation department didn't really put much effort into tracking down Pirie to give him his cash. The department sent a single certified letter to Pirie's last known address, which is the minimum effort required by law.
KXAN found Pirie by simply searching for him on social media. He didn’t even know he had a large sum of money in his name until we told him.
“I didn't move to Saudi Arabia,” said Pirie. “I've always been here in Austin. It has not been tough to find me.”
It was just as easy to find other victims online.
A drunk driver crashed into Brittany Webre’s car in 2008 and was ordered by the court to pay $1,300 in restitution. She, too, had no clue she had money owed to her until we told her.
“I completely wrote this off, and this is really awesome. I may have some money for my tuition this fall,” said Webre.
Both Webre and Pirie are just two of nearly 1,500 crime victims owed restitution money who the Travis County Probation Department claims it can't locate. In an effort to find out why the department doesn’t do more to find the victims, KXAN requested an interview with Charles Robinson, the department’s director. Robinson declined our request for an on-camera interview, stating in an email: “Our practices are consistent with our legal obligation."
So, we caught up with the director at the probation department.
“Can we set up a time to talk to you?” KXAN Investigator Brian Collister asked Robinson.
“I think you have my answer,” Robinson replied.
“But, why can't you do more?” Collister asked Robinson as he walked away. “…like just Googling their names like we did? It's pretty easy to find them.” Robinson refused to answer as he walked into the building and shut the door.
Restitution Amount by Counties
Following the Money
The reason his office doesn't do more could be because it actually makes a profit by holding onto unclaimed restitution money. Counties earn interest on those funds and are allowed to keep a 5 percent "collection fee" once it goes to the state comptroller's office after five years.
We asked state Comptroller Glenn Hegar about what his office does to help get crime victims their money since it’s not shown in the comptroller’s unclaimed property database available online.
“If anybody comes forward wanting the dollars then obviously we give the money to them”, said Hegar.
Because of KXAN’s investigation, the comptroller’s office says they are working on a plan to include the names of restitution recipients who have not received their money on its unclaimed property website to help people find it easier. The office is in the process of researching whether or not the process will require a legislative item that will allow them to make the information searchable.
Ironically, we noticed Hegar’s name in Travis County’s unclaimed restitution data. He has money owed to him from an old theft case when he was a House Representative in the Texas Legislature back in 2004.
“The Travis County Probation Department says it can't find you to give you your restitution,” Collister told Hegar.
“I have no clue what that is,” said Hegar.
“You don't remember paying for cowboy boots but not getting them?” Collister asked.
“Oh yes, I do remember that,” Hegar recalled. “They got my name wrong. I don't live at that address anymore and I never got a certified receipt.”
“I didn't move to Saudi Arabia. I've always been here in Austin. It has not been tough to find me.”—Ian Pirie
We found the same thing happened to State Representative Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who didn’t know he had unclaimed restitution.
“Thank you. Thank you. I mean, it’s a couple thousand bucks,” said Geren.
And now because of what we uncovered, Geren is working to change the current law to require more be done to find victims who have money coming to them.
“I'm going to look further into it to see what we need to do to notify people because if it's happening in Travis County, it's probably happening in some of the other 254 counties in the state,” said Geren.
And Geren is correct. Our investigation found the $22 million in restitution money the comptroller is holding comes from more than 150 counties and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice dating back to 2000. Click here to see a list of agencies sending the most restitution money to the Comptroller:
Everyone KXAN found has now received their money.
We also learned California created an "Unknown Victims Unit" that successfully located thousands of crime victims and handed out more than $9 million since 2010. Comptroller Hegar is now looking into how his office could do something similar.
Do You Have Unclaimed Restitution in Travis County?
If you were a victim of a crime and someone was arrested, make sure you keep track and gather as much information as possible about the case. If you don’t have case details, contact the police department that investigated the crime.
If you think restitution may have been ordered, but were never notified, contact the court in which the case was heard to ask.
If you were notified of restitution, but never got it, contact the Adult Probation Department in your county.
For Williamson County Adult Probation call 512-943-3500.
For Hays County Adult Probation call 512-353-5892
If the criminal in the case was sentenced to serve time in prison in addition to paying you restitution, contact the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Parole Division at 512-406-5250.
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