Tom Hickman's Shadow Government

March 10, 1994

The effort by Carroll County State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman to prohibit the county auditor from examining the files of the county's drug task force only underscores the need for scrutiny over task force operations.

In a letter last month, Mr. Hickman told Carroll's top elected officials they have no legal right to oversee task force operations. If the commissioners persist in their attempt to audit the task force, he threatened, the county grand jury might have to undertake a criminal investigation of their efforts.

Mr. Hickman asserts two reasons why the commissioners cannot pursue an audit of the task force: They have no authority regarding state or city contributions to it, and further investigation might compromise the task force's pursuit of illegal drug users and dealers. Neither of his reasons holds up under examination.

Mr. Hickman himself has repeatedly said that, except for some initial seed money from the county, the task force has been financed exclusively from assets seized from drug suspects. However, as long as the task force seizes property in the name of the people of Carroll County, those dollars fall within the responsibility of the county. With that in mind, the county commissioners are within their rights to examine what happens to that property from the time it is seized to the time proceeds from its sale are spent.

As for Mr. Hickman's effort to deflect checks and balances on the task force by wrapping its operations in the cloak of confidentiality, his argument isn't persuasive. State and federal government agencies with a much greater need for confidentiality routinely submit to rigorous financial audits. There are ways to allow access to files without compromising the confidentiality of task force informants or investigations. The commissioners need not know the details of all task force work, just that county money is not being squandered, stolen or misspent.

After Mr. Hickman made a big show of allowing county auditors access to the task force's books and records a few months ago, the state's attorney is now saying those files are off-limits. His abrupt change of heart only raises more questions. The commissioners must get answers and the access to which they are legally entitled. They should not let Mr. Hickman's outrageous threats deter them.

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