York County in Pennsylvania is one of America’s great historic counties. The city of York was designated by Congress as the first capital of the United States before later settling on Washington D.C. The county lies just a stone’s throw from Gettysburg, a place that needs no introduction in the canon of American history.
But of course, York County has a forfeiture fund that receives funds from property seized in drug investigations under a 1988 law that gives law enforcement wide discretion to seize practically anything they deem is linked to a narcotics investigation (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6801). The law is extremely draconian, and actually stipulates that all records of deposits or management of this fund be kept secret:
Annual audit of forfeited property.–It shall be the responsibility of every county in this Commonwealth to provide, through the controller, board of auditors or other appropriate auditor and the district attorney, an annual audit of all forfeited property and proceeds obtained under this section. The audit shall not be made public but shall be submitted to the Office of Attorney General…
The local daily, the York Dispatch, published an editorial yesterday detailing the corruption of both public officials and law enforcement in managing the fund. They note the hypocrisy and broken promises of District Attorney Tom Kearney, who ran for office partly on the promise that he would audit the fun and publicize the results:
The York County District Attorney’s Office, which oversees the task force, doesn’t have to reveal how much money is in the drug forfeiture fund or how exactly the money is used.
During last year’s campaign to unseat longtime District Attorney Stan Rebert, Tom Kearney called for greater accountability of that fund, which he rightly complained was “shrouded in secrecy.”
The best he could determine at the time was that it held more than $1 million, which wasn’t earning interest and wasn’t being used for community-based drug intervention and prevention programs.
Now in office about six months, DA Kearney is making good on his promise to shine a light on the fund, ordering an audit for the period of Oct. 1, 2008, through Dec. 31, 2009.
But his effort falls well short of what’s needed.
Kearney said he only plans to release a statement broadly explaining the results of the audit, saying he’s prohibited from discussing the details. In fact, he won’t even disclose the current balance.
This is starting to sound awfully familiar.
To be fair, it’s unlikely Kearney suddenly had a change of heart. Instead, he probably encountered the reality of what is a flawed law that mandates the sort of secrecy we would not otherwise tolerate.
Counties must report details of those funds to the state Attorney General’s Office, but how they spend that money is, by law, kept from the public.
It appears the intent was to protect the task force officers by not tipping off the crooks to their resources, or, perhaps, lack of resources.
Yet every municipal police department’s budget is an open book, available for all — including the bad guys — to see. How is the county’s Drug Task Force and the forfeiture fund any different?
No one is asking to see such things as salaries, shift schedules, the descriptions and license plate numbers of new undercover vehicles, or how the members are armed. But the public has a right to a basic, annual accounting of how money seized on their behalf is being used, and to determine for themselves if it’s being used properly.
When you’re dealing with a million dollars or more, “Just trust me” doesn’t really cut it. Even for law enforcement.