Former District Attorney Ron Sutton on Friday said state officials eager to tighten statutory controls over forfeited funds orchestrated his prosecution to cast him as evidence of a problem.This outcome is almost as surprising as the fact that charges were brought in the first place. It's not as though Sutton is the only prosecutor who has violated asset forfeiture laws. DAs for years have treated asset forfeiture income as their own personal fiefdom but there's historically been nobody out there grading their papers. In this case the central issue was a high-profile trip to Hawaii and the lack of auditing and required approvals for expenditures.
A defiant Sutton made the claim minutes after being sentenced to two years deferred adjudication on two counts of misapplication of fiduciary property worth $20,000 to $100,000, and being ordered to pay $20,000 restitution.
Not so, said special prosecutor Bill Turner and Jerry Strickland of the attorney general's staff, which investigated Sutton, who was the lead prosecutor in the five-county Hill Country judicial district for 33 years until his retirement in late 2008.
“Nobody at the state level has tried to influence me in the investigation and prosecution of this matter,” Turner said.
“The law specifically requires that seized funds be audited, maintained in the county depository, and requires commissioner court approval for expenditures for employee expenses,” Turner said. “These safeguards were not in place for funds forfeited in the 198th Judicial District Attorney's Office.”
That lack of accountability paved the way for misuse of the money, he said, noting, “This was a case of bad judgment, as opposed to greed.”
Turner said the six-day Hawaiian stays for bar conferences weren't valid expenditures because work was only conducted on three days, and because Sutton covered the travel costs of workers' spouses.
He also said the state constitution prohibits staff bonuses like those Sutton paid of $500 and $1,000 to 11 subordinates between 2002 and 2008.
No charges are expected against the prosecutors, secretaries, probation officers or spouses who benefited from the improper expenditures.
“The gatekeeper is responsible for the expenditure,” Turner said. “The recipients are not.”
Sutton said he didn't fight the charges because he couldn't afford a trial — which could have cost as much as $50,000 — nor risk being convicted.
Sutton complains that he couldn't afford to take the case to trial so he pled guilty even though he (says he) believes he is innocent. Well, cry me a river! How many defendants in the identical position has Sutton coerced into plea deals, likely patting himself on the back afterward for being such an effective prosecutor? What's good for the goose will do just fine for the gander, thank you very much. Prosecuting over the trip to Hawaii alone might have seemed a little chickenshit, but the bonuses to staff were flat out illegal if they weren't approved by the commissioners court. And he's not the only DA doing that, either.
The best way to solve these problems would be to assign asset forfeiture income to non-law enforcement purposes - in Indiana all seized money goes to schools - so there's no temptation to pad the budget by pursuing forfeitures. Counties want to keep the money saying "we found it," but they also "found" prisoners sent to TDCJ and the state pays all those costs. Why should counties keep income resulting from prosecution but the state pay all the costs of punishment?
Chairman Whitmire's bill didn't go that far, proposing to strengthen controls over the money but leaving it in the hands of law enforcement. Since his legislation came so close to passage in 2009, expect Whitmire to take another crack at forfeiture reform next session, at which time I suspect his committee will be revisiting the details of Mr. Sutton's conviction.
See related Grits posts:
- Tenaha post child for asset forfeiture abuses
- Reining in asset forfeiture abuses
- DA's overreliance on asset forfeiture violates the law
- Take the profit motive out of asset forfeiture
- Senate committee: Asset forfeiture too often a profit-making venture
- Outgoing Sheriff went on forfeiture-backed spending spree
- Asset forfeiture dependent Sheriff views Hwy 77 as 'piggy bank'
- Asset forfeiture funds may get more accountability, money diverted to drug courts
- Levin: Assets seized from criminals shouldn't become political slush fund
- What's the difference between a pirate and a privateer?