Employees in the Dallas County government offices in Oak Cliff were puzzled by all the vehicles with temporary paper tags in the parking lot.
The 30-day tags were on personal vehicles driven by deputy constables based in the building. Some of the deputies have been renewing the temporary permits every month, paying $25 each time, leading some officials to wonder if they have title to the vehicles.
The paper tags first aroused suspicions in the tax office about two years ago. Some of those deputy constables are still driving personal vehicles with paper tags.
The transactions raise questions about where the constables are getting the vehicles, some of which were in salvage yards after being damaged in crashes. The constables, however, won't say where they got the vehicles.
At least one county official - County Judge Jim Foster - says he wants to make sure the vehicles did not come from the company that tows and impounds vehicles for some of the constables. He has called on the county to investigate ways to provide better oversight of towing by county law enforcement agencies.
Some constable officers only recently applied for titles to their vehicles, with at least one seeking a bonded title. A bonded title is a sort of insurance policy you can buy to protect yourself against future claims to the vehicle. It is generally sought after the state denies a title application because of a lack of proper ownership evidence.
Precinct 5 Constable Jamie Cortes, who took office in 2007, said he wasn't aware that some of his deputies were renewing temporary registrations.
Cortes registered a 2002 Chevrolet Silverado in April that he also had been driving with temporary paper tags for an unknown period of time. The pickup, which until recently had been owned by an insurance company, sustained flood damage and was rebuilt, according to a Carfax report.
Cortes said he was too busy running his office to register the truck until recently. He declined to say where he acquired the vehicle.
"I had a lot of other things to worry about. A paper tag on my personal car is the least of my worries," he said.
Lt. Howard Watson, one of Cortes' high-ranking officers, received a bonded title on July 29 for a 2000 Ford Crown Victoria he had been driving with temporary tags, records show. The car, which he still drives, had only one previous owner, and it received front-end damage during a 2005 crash in Oklahoma, according to a Carfax report.
Watson is also driving a 2001 Cadillac Catera with paper tags. The car, originally registered in Florida, was sold at auction in Texas in April 2007, a Carfax report shows. It's not clear from the report what company handled the auction.
The Cadillac has not been registered in Texas, the Carfax report shows.
Watson did not return calls seeking comment.
Watson lost his ability to park his county vehicle at his home about a year ago after wrecking it while off-duty. The district attorney's office demanded reimbursement from Watson for repairs to the take-home car after the weekend crash in September 2007.
Cortes said Watson is still working on getting a license plate on his Cadillac. He said he didn't ask what the problem was because that would be "getting into their personal business."
Debbie Jones, a manager of the county tax office, said the renewal requests for temporary tags from deputy constables raised the interest of tax workers because the practice was so unusual. Temporary tags cost $25 for 30 days.
One of Jones' employees called the Texas Department of Transportation to ask if there was any limit to the number of temporary tags the office could issue to an individual driver. There wasn't.
Kim Sue Lia Perkes, a TxDOT spokeswoman, said people do not consistently renew 30-day tags because of the cost and because it's impractical.
"Most people want to get it registered," she said.
Initially, the deputies angered tax office managers by insisting on cutting to the front of long lines and then holding up the lines because of problems with their transactions, county officials said.
The Oak Cliff tax office is a busy location, with perennially long lines, Jones said.
"That's not how we operate," Jones said of the deputies' line-cutting. "We said this is going to stop."
David Childs, tax assessor-collector at the time, said he, his Oak Cliff manager and Jones met with Cortes' chief deputy and several others from the precinct.
"We told them about the philosophy of the tax office. Every human was equal and that they needed to respect that," Childs said. As a result, the line-cutting stopped, he said.
The deputies often had problems with their paperwork, Childs said.
"It had to be inspected with a fine-tooth comb. A lot of times problems were found. ... Their work was usually not clean," said Childs, who left office last year. "Whenever a clerk would tell them we can't approve this as is, they would become irate and intimidating."
The tax office said records of the temporary tags are not available.
Foster said he only recently became aware of the transactions. He said he hopes the untitled vehicles are not coming from Dowdy Ferry Auto Services, which handles towing and impound services for Cortes and Precinct 1 Constable Derick Evans.
Foster has been critical of the constables' arrangement with Dowdy Ferry, which is under investigation by state regulators. Dowdy Ferry is owned by Chris Nasrallah Sr., who also owns Dallas County Auto Salvage in Irving.
One of Nasrallah's former tow-truck drivers said he noticed a close relationship between constables and his former boss.
Santiago Calderon, who drove a tow truck for the salvage business, said Nasrallah's son, Chris Nasrallah Jr., ordered him to tow a constable's personal car from the salvage yard to a repair shop last year.
Nasrallah Jr. told him to be careful with the car, a late 1960s or 1970s Cadillac, he said. Calderon said he didn't know the constable's name.
Calderon also said he would see uniformed deputy constables at the salvage business about every week. He said he also saw Cortes there. He said he didn't know why they were there.
Nasrallah referred calls to his lawyer. The lawyer, Charles McGarry, did not return a call seeking comment.
Cortes said he is not aware of any of his deputies getting vehicles from the impound lot. He said he's never received a vehicle from the lot.
"I wouldn't want them to be purchasing any vehicles from Dowdy Ferry. I don't think anyone has," he said.
Al Da staff writer Julian Resendiz and staff researcher Molly Motley Blythe contributed to this report.