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The Prosecutor and His Zamboni

On February 18, 2013, in Drug War, states, by Eapen Thampy

The Metrowest Daily News reports on the Worcester, Massachusetts District Attorney Joseph Early’s use of his asset forfeiture fund:

The Worcester County District Attorney’s office is fighting drug crime with a Zamboni, lawn equipment and a refurbished basketball court.The $985 ice resurfacing machine was one of many purchases Joseph Early’s office made with the $903,000 in forfeited drug money his office spent in the past 15 months, according to an audit released Friday by State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office.The audit found nothing illegal about how the DA’s office spends money it seizes in connection with drug crime, but the review does detail severe lapses in accounting for how the money is kept and spent, especially on community programs.

“WCDA should strengthen its internal control systems relating to the reconciliation, documentation and reporting of forfeited funds,” the audit says.

Early said his office purchased the 50-gallon machine for ice skating rinks in the city of Worcester, where members of a drug diversion program work, according to the audit.

The probe found $15,200 paid to a tree-trimming vendor and $23,733 to a non-profit community center to refurbish tennis and basketball courts.

Early, according to the audit, said the tree-trimming was necessary to repair trees damaged in an ice storm.

He said the private community center, with newly refurbished tennis and basketball courts, serves local youth, but “the request did not detail how many at-risk children would benefit from the renovations.”

In all, the audit says the Worcester DA’s office spent $205,000 in the 15-month audit period on community activities.

The audit says auditors found 30 approved expenditures, totaling $56,196, lacked adequate supporting documentation, such as the type of expense, who received the item and the law enforcement purpose.

The probe into spending forfeiture money is only part of the wide-reaching audit, but perhaps the most important.

Under state law, law enforcement officers can seize any money or property they believe could be involved in or profits of drug crime. The law, Chapter 94c, provides loose guidelines on how the money can be spent but a Daily News investigation, scheduled to appear in Sunday’s paper, found very little public oversight governs its spending.

The law says DAs may spend up to 10 percent of forfeiture funds on drug rehabilitation or anti-drug neighborhood crime watch programs. That is where Worcester DA officials said the Zamboni comes in.

The audit also shines light onto other general lapses in accounting of forfeiture funds. For example, auditors found 81 instances, for a total of $34,000, dating back to 1988, where outside police departments did not remit money they owed to the DA.

Between fiscal 2009 and 2011, Worcester County deposited $2.2 million in forfeited funds and spent $1.9 million, according to a report submitted to the legislature by the DA’s office.

Of that, $1.1 million was spent on “other law enforcement purposes,” $486,000 on “costs of protracted investigations,” and $299,000 on community programs.

The audit recommends the DA’s office write a formal policy for how it will distribute forfeiture funds.

Christopher Thompson, a spokesman for the Office of the State Auditor, said shortfalls in proper record-keeping is often what such audits are intended to find.

“Our audits do not as often find actual misuse, but we find situations where misuse could occur, such as a lack of proper documentation for expenditures,” Thompson said. “We look for a paper trail to make sure everything can be explained.”

The DA’s office, in a response within the audit, said it will attempt to strengthen its internal control systems and establish a committee to review requests by community groups for forfeited funds.

The probe into management of forfeiture funds is only one aspect of the audit. It is released Friday alongside an audit of the Bristol County District Attorney’s office, which had similar findings.

In DA Sam Sutter’s office, auditors found $126,000 in state grant money erroneously deposited into the forfeiture account. It also found a $692,000 variance between the Seized Fund Logbook and actual funds in the bank, which totaled $2.1 million.

The audit also recommended creating a written policy governing the expenditure and allocation of forfeited funds to community programs, although only $2,050 in Bristol County was spent on such programs during the auditing period.

Audits of all state agencies occur on a 3-year schedule, according to Thompson. Since the audit came back with findings, though, the auditor’s office will check back in six months to check on the DAs’ progress in implementing the suggestions.

 From Laura Krantz and Jessica Trufant. “Audit: Worcester DA’s office bought Zamboni, lawn gear with forfeited drug money“, Metrowestdailynews.com, 15 Feb. 2013.

The 2010 report “Policing for Profit” by our colleagues at the Institute for Justice gave Massachusetts a “D” for its asset forfeiture practices, noting:

Massachusetts has a terrible civil forfeiture regime.  Under Massachusetts civil forfeiture law, law enforcement need only show probable cause that your property was related to a crime to forfeit it.  You are then in effect guilty until proven innocent, as you must shoulder the burden of proving that the property was not forfeitable or that you did not know and should not have known about the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture.  Further, law enforcement keeps 100 percent of all forfeited property.  The receipts are split: half to the prosecutor’s office and half to the local or state police.  Massachusetts is required to collect forfeiture data, but in response to requests, the state provided data only for 2000 to 2003.

It’s well past time for Massachusetts lawmakers to abolish civil forfeiture entirely and return the proceeds of any fines or forfeitures to the general funds controlled by municipalities and the state.

Our other coverage of forfeiture issues in Massachusetts:

Our coverage of the Motel Caswell case

Massachusetts suit threatens the permanent forfeiture of firearms without due process (March 2012)

Marginal reform no solution to systemic problems (Suffolk, June 2011)

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