An investigation into possible criminal misconduct by the Rockingham County District Attorney James Reams has implicated misuse of the Rockingham County Asset Forfeiture account. As James Kimble at the New Hampshire Union-Leader reports:
A forfeiture account once controlled by embattled Rockingham County Attorney James Reams is being scrutinized as part of the state and federal investigation into his office, the New Hampshire Union Leader has learned.
The Rockingham County Attorney Forfeiture Account has reaped thousands of dollars in federal asset forfeiture money and court-ordered fines from corporations that were prosecuted for state liquor violations or gambling offenses.
Reams' office has taken in roughly $139,890 in fines and seized cash from liquor and gambling prosecutions since August 2005, according to a review of court records.
Thousands of dollars of that money has been doled out to local police departments that aided in investigating the liquor-offense or gambling cases, while also covering expenses at the county attorney's office for staff training, equipment and office supplies, county finance records show.
Attorney General Joe Foster suspended Reams on the night of Nov. 6 pending the outcome of a state and federal investigation into management issues at his office.
Bank statements for the forfeiture account — obtained through a Right-to-Know request — show that $25,241.91 in electronic payments was made to an American Express card dating back to 2007.
County Commissioner Kevin Coyle said that the county has no detailed statements to the American Express card, and has not asked for one to date.
"As far as we know, it's not a county credit card," Coyle said.
Reams acknowledged in an interview that the credit card belongs to him.
He said the money paid to the credit card reimbursed him for travel expenses incurred while attending conferences held by the National District Attorney's Association.
"If I went to a meeting, it would cover airfare, hotel, per diem," Reams said. "A check would be written directly to the credit card company. I fronted all of those expenses and got reimbursed."
Last year, the account made $8,170.78 in electronic payments to the American Express card, bank records show.
Reams said he has maintained detailed records of the reimbursements, and that all uses of the money are permissible through federal guidelines for asset forfeiture funds. He said that his participation in the NDAA has brought more money back to New Hampshire in training than the cost of going to conferences, and has saved county taxpayers thousands.
Reams said the travel expenses only represent a small portion of the account's holdings.
"The vast majority of the money went right back to police departments," he said.
Although New Hampshire law allows law enforcement to retain 45% of the proceeds of forfeitures accomplished under state law, proceeds of federal asset forfeiture proceedings are only regulated by Department of Justice rules, which allow for expansive uses of forfeiture funds that may not be legal or sanctioned by state law. Indeed, as the Kimble finds, the existence of a forfeiture fund at the Rockingham County District attorney's office was rather unusual:
The Rockingham County Attorney Forfeiture Account — which also has a checkbook bearing the same name — is unique in New Hampshire.
The state's nine other county attorneys said in interviews that their office has no such account.
They also said the kind of liquor and gambling cases that in part funded Rockingham County's Forfeiture Account are rarely, if ever, pursued in their jurisdiction.
"I have been prosecuting for 31 years, and I've had one gambling case," Merrimack County Attorney Scott Murray said.
Murray and other county attorneys across the state questioned whether they had the legal authority to collect or spend money from such an account.
"The money we spend is approved by the county delegation," he said.
It's refreshing (and rare!) to find a state where prosecutors don't view their offices as revenue centers, and decisions about the use of public money are the exclusive province of an elected legislature. While we don't yet know precisely the nature of the misconduct surrounding the Rockingham County District Attorney's Office, we can say that the New Hampshire legislature should seriously consider abolishing civil forfeiture entirely, along with the ability of state law enforcement to access federal forfeiture funds through the DOJ's Equitable Sharing Program. If the federal government does choose to share proceeds of federal forfeiture with the states, state legislatures should control those funds, and subject those revenues to the normal appropriation process.