Hickman stifles rumors of drug task force cash

May 16, 1993|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

A county auditor questioned the Carroll County Narcotic Task Force about its finances recently after the commissioners became concerned the drug unit might have a rumored $50,000 in undisclosed cash.

The auditor, who made the inquiries about two weeks ago, didn't find the rumored money, and the commissioners apparently are satisfied it doesn't exist.

"We heard the rumors that they had the extra money, and, without any undertones or overtones, we wanted to look at that," Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy said Friday. "There was no inference of anything illegal, no concern of any wrongdoing afoot."

Concerns about excess money became public Monday, when Carroll State's Attorney Thomas H. Hickman asked the commissioners for an additional $10,000 to purchase new police radios for two of the task force's five members.

As he made his pitch for the radios, Mr. Hickman made a passing reference to the rumor, calling it false.

"Frankly, we don't know where that [rumor] came from," Mr. Hickman said Friday. "We'd like to know, but it came to light when a county auditor made some inquiries."

While the source of the rumor was unclear Friday, it apparently originated within the County Office Building, a person knowledgeable about the situation said.

Mr. Hickman speculated that the rumor could have been fed by the drug unit's recent return of $32,000 seized from a Union Bridge pizza shop owner.

Inquiries into task force finances are unusual, especially from a .. county auditor. The task force is not under direct county control, and the bulk of its operating budget -- outside of salaries -- comes from proceeds of drug forfeitures or property buy-back agreements.

The commissioners ordered the auditor's inquiry only after Mr. -- Hickman requested money for task force equipment, Mr. Lippy said.

"We're satisfied at what was there," Mr. Lippy said. "We didn't want to point the finger of blame at anyone, but we wanted to know if the task force was asking for money from us, that they didn't have any of their own."

Tim Hartman, the county auditor who made the financial inquiries, said the task force has a checking account balance of about $7,000 and a savings account with close to $10,000.

"The county, some time ago, helped fund the beginnings of the task force," Mr. Hartman said Friday. With the drug unit's request for additional money, and with the rumor of excess cash, "the commissioners just wanted to check into that," he said.

Mr. Hartman said he talked to Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo, the person responsible for maintaining task force checking and savings accounts.

He said Chief Leppo gave him the balances of the two accounts.

"The commissioners would have to ask for a full audit, if they wanted [one]," Mr. Hartman said.

Mr. Lippy said such an audit was unlikely.

Documents obtained by The Sun last month showed the task force checking account balance was between $5,000 and $7,000 from August to early April.

The money, Chief Leppo said in an April interview, comes entirely from drug suspects through asset forfeiture or buy-backs, a program that enables them to forestall property forfeiture by paying the task force a fee.

The buy-backs are confidential agreements between the task force and the person whose property is seized.

According to checkbook documents released by Chief Leppo, the task force has raised $10,034 in 20 buy-backs from August to early April.

The documents show the task force took in another $8,335 from two property forfeitures during the same period.

From August to early April, the task force wrote checks totaling more than $14,700. Expenditures included $575 for tinting the office windows of state police Sgt. John Burton, the task force supervisor; $333.59 for repairs to "audio intelligence devices"; $671.02 for computer equipment; and $132.75 for a "business lunch" at Cockey's Tavern.

Most of the other expenditures were for telephone bills, undercover clothing and other operational costs.

The checkbook documents are the only detailed financial records released by the task force since August, when The Sun began making requests for details of the unit's budget.

Mr. Hickman, who repeated Friday that he does not know the details of the task force budget, said the unit spends about $15,000 a year.

"No county money is used in that budget," Mr. Hickman said. "That's a figure we hope to make, and, if we don't, we may have to ask for some help from the county."

That help would include the $10,000 radio request as well as a list of other items on Mr. Hickman's "wish list."

Aside from a new unit headquarters -- he and Sergeant Burton said Friday that too many people know its location and can track the movements of task force officers -- Mr. Hickman would not elaborate on his requests.

"I can't tell you everything we want. Some of that would tip off to the drug dealers what we're trying to do," the prosecutor said.

The task force is comprised of three state troopers, a county sheriff's deputy and a Westminster police officer.

It is governed by an advisory board, whose members are Mr. Hickman, Chief Leppo, Sergeant Burton and County Sheriff John H. Brown.

The task force receives no direct, regular financial aid from the county, except for free space for its headquarters.

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