Saturday, February 14, 2009

Outgoing Sheriff went on forfeiture-backed spending spree

With Chairman John Whitmire and the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee poised to exercise greater oversight over asset forfeiture accounts controlled by local law enforcement agencies, a reader points to an example from the chairman's home county which shows how such monies are subject to whimsical, unregulated and politicized spending. According to (Feb. 6):
Sheriff's department records reviewed by Local 2 Investigates show that former Sheriff Tommy Thomas began draining the department's asset forfeiture account shortly after his November defeat at the polls.

The account is comprised of money seized from drug dealers and other criminals, and it was successfully used in the 1990s to build a state-of-the-art firearms training range in Atascocita.

Local 2 Investigates found the new sheriff will have millions less in that fund for any similar big-ticket projects because of the spending that started in the days following his win at the polls. Records show Thomas spent more than half of that money in just two months, despite having kept the account balance near $9.7 million for at least three years.

"It was seized during my tenure," said Thomas by telephone from a hunting trip. After his defeat on Election Day, records show Thomas quickly spent $5 million on items that could end up costing taxpayers even more money, according to current county officials.
As it turns out, a lot of the money was wasted or will cost taxpayers more in the future:
The new sheriff said 105 digital dashboard video cameras did not come with the supporting software, so they cannot be used without spending additional money. Cars may end up costing taxpayers more as well. The former sheriff also committed to buying 44 new patrol cars from a dealership in Caldwell, Texas. The cars remain idle on the dealer's lot and current county officials blame the hurried way that the deal was handled. The new sheriff was able to stop the asset seizure money from being used, so now the usual taxpayer-funded car budget will be used.

The cars were ordered without using the county fleet office, which usually employs a specific process for all county vehicle purchases.

"Normally I buy all their replacement vehicles and that's why this was an odd request for them to be buying them to begin with," Harris County Fleet Director Keith Branner said. "I really don't know what the urgency was, other than to deplete that fund." ...

He said the cars were ordered with rear spoilers and lighting equipment that the county usually does not pay for, so now each car will cost hundreds more since the cars are already equipped with the added features.
While these expenditures appear to be mostly for "law enforcement purposes" as required by Chapter 59 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, they were also overtly political, aimed not at filling some pressing need but to reduce funds available for the man who would replace the outgoing Sheriff:
"I did spend a lot after Election Day," said Thomas. "I don't know what this new guy's going to spend it on, so I wanted to make sure the people who seized that money were the ones to benefit from it."
Unfortunately, there's not a lot of benefit from buying digital dashcams without the accompanying software or adding spoilers onto county squad cars.

The incident seems to confirm the sense of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in its recent report (pdf) that asset forfeiture funds are viewed by many law enforcement as "a profit-making, personal account." Clearly Thomas viewed the forfeiture account as his money, not the taxpayers and felt at complete liberty to spend it for personal and political motives (and small-minded, spiteful one at that), not to fill some presssing need.

See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

My grandmother use to always tell me that just because you could do something, it doesn't mean you should. Wise woman my grandma. I wish more people in power had one like her.

Anonymous said...

Probably a lot of people in power had a mother or grandmother like that, too many just don't heed their advice. Unfortunately.

The Rev.

Anonymous said...

This guy did the opposite and tried to squander his seizure money.
So what's your point?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To 9:01 - Huh? He did the opposite of what?

Anonymous said...

Do the math. He seized and spent relatively little, of the 9.7 million dollars in the years before he lost the election. After losing, he spent only 5 million in an attempt to deplete his seized fund account.
Most of the other law enforcement agencies shot the wad on questionable expenses, not squandering the cash in a bank account.