Task force files placed off-limits

March 03, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman abruptly closed the files of the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force to county auditors last month, saying they lacked authority to audit the group.

"The task force board of directors has conferred and voted to deny access to all state's attorney and police files," Mr. Hickman wrote in a confidential Feb. 15 letter to the county commissioners. A copy of the letter was obtained yesterday by The Sun.

Mr. Hickman said in the letter that he was "surprised" that county auditors were continuing their probe of the task force. The audit began last year at the commissioners' request.

"It may well occur to a private citizen or the media or another elected official or someone running for office this year that it is rather obvious that the county commissioners do not have the authority to conduct a performance audit of the state and city entities which make up the task force," Mr. Hickman told the commissioners.

The task force is composed of state police, Westminster city police, county sheriff's deputies and an assistant state's attorney. Its advisory board consists of Mr. Hickman, Sheriff John H. Brown, city Police Chief Sam R. Leppo and several state police representatives.

Yesterday, Mr. Hickman denied that he was hindering the commissioners from continuing their audit of the drug group's finances and said that he would continue to cooperate with county auditors as long as they looked only at financial data and investigative files.

"We're perfectly willing to give them any financial information they want," Mr. Hickman said.

"But they were looking to do a performance audit. They can't do a performance audit on agencies of other parts of government," he said.

Mr. Hickman said the task force advisory board members voted to keep the group's files sealed until the Maryland attorney general gives them "guidance" on what they should release to the auditors.

In the letter, Mr. Hickman told the commissioners to consult their attorney if they insisted on continuing their performance audit.

"I do not wish to discuss this matter with you because I feel I may have an ethical conflict in doing so," he wrote. "By law, I am counsel to the grand jury."

On Feb. 10, the county auditors asked to examine task force investigative records to "tie up loose ends" in a six-month audit conducted last year, a county official, who requested anonymity, told The Sun. The commissioners ordered the audit after attorneys, judges and the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern about the task force's methods of confiscating property from drug suspects.

The auditors found no financial improprieties. But the county official said the commissioners wanted a money trail for the cars, weapons and cash that the task force seized from drug `f suspects.

Throughout the audit, Mr. Hickman told the commissioners that the task force's books were open for inspection. In the Feb. 15 letter, he repeated that assertion.

When the auditors began asking to look at investigative files, in which records of seized property are kept, Mr. Hickman and other task force members became angry.

"This breach of confidentiality has everyone involved with the task force very upset," Mr. Hickman said in his letter.

The commissioners said yesterday they were surprised by the tone and content of Mr. Hickman's letter.

County Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said the letter was unexpected, especially after his earlier assertion that the task force files were open.

"They said we were trying to see into too many private files," Mrs. Gouge said.

She said that she has always supported the mission of the task force but that she remains concerned about how the drug group seizes property and raises money.

"We definitely need the task force, but we want a drug task force that is fair to the citizens," she said.

Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy said he thought that Mr. Hickman would continue to cooperate with county auditors.

"We were a little mystified and surprised to get Mr. Hickman's letter," Mr. Lippy said. "I think wanting to know the money trail of seized items is certainly a valid, public concern."

Commissioner Donald I. Dell said he hoped the issue was merely a lack of communication between Mr. Hickman and county auditors.

"I think this is more confusion than anything else over what we mean by 'performance audit,' " Mr. Dell said. "All we have wanted to look at were financial items. Maybe 'performance audit' was the wrong word."

The commissioners said that they were working on a response to Mr. Hickman's letter.

News of the thwarted audit came two days after Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown proposed a drug task force oversight committee in a closed session of the Westminster City Council.

Mr. Hickman scorned the idea and said yesterday that on Jan. 19 he invited Mayor Brown and the City Council to appoint "an ex-officio, nonvoting member" of the task force's current advisory board.

Mayor Brown said the city declined the invitation.

Mr. Hickman said he also extended the same invitation to Mr. Dell, who accepted.

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