Drug task force's power over its budget put at risk

June 12, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

To hear State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman tell it, Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo's decision to stop handling the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force's evidence, property and finances would cost the taxpayers time and money.

Mr. Hickman says Mr. Leppo's decision might force narcotics officers to waste valuable time shuttling evidence between Westminster and as far away as a state police property room in Columbia.

"This is going to cost the county substantial amounts of money in manpower and time," the state's attorney said last week. "It's a loss for the citizens of Carroll County."

But the real loss could be the task force's power to set its own budget, according to law enforcement officials interviewed last week.

For more than two years, Chief Leppo has kept track of the drug group's finances, stored drugs and evidence, and managed its pile of seized property. But Tuesday, Chief Leppo said he was fed up with the county's nearly 15-month audit of the drug task force.

All but one of the 14 drug task forces in Maryland undergo routine financial audits, mostly by outside auditing firms, state police officials said Friday. The one exception has been Carroll's, which last year recommended an outside auditor to the commissioners. The commissioners decided to proceed with their own auditors.

"The scope of this audit has gone too far when I have to document every minute of my time," the Westminster chief said of his decision to relinquish those duties by July 1. "I agreed to do this as a support for the task force, to help the officers out."

Because of those activities, the city of Westminster has been the official government entity that seeks forfeiture of cars, boats, cash and other property that the task force deems were used in the drug trade. And, thanks to the mayor and City Council, the money earned by the sale of that property went back to the task force.

By almost any measure, the amount of money going to the task force is small -- usually $15,000 to $20,000 a year. Under this arrangement, the task force has been free to allocate the money any way it likes.

When Chief Leppo and the city of Westminster relinquish their role as the task force's "seizing agent," the drug enforcement group has at least two options:

* Ask Carroll Sheriff John H. Brown to take Chief Leppo's place. The sheriff has said that, while he doesn't want to assume duties as the task force's seizing agent, he's "willing to do so." With some minor modifications to the department's property room, the sheriff's office could handle the extra evidence and property generated by the task force.

* Ask the state police Bureau of Drug Enforcement to become the task force's seizing agent.

The bureau, with headquarters in Columbia in Howard County, can accommodate the task force's property and evidence, and it has the expertise to oversee the group's forfeiture process. This option, Mr. Hickman said last week, would cost the taxpayers "thousands" in lost investigation time because officers would have to travel to Columbia every time evidence is needed in Carroll.

With both options, the task force -- and its advisory board -- would lose direct control over the proceeds from forfeitures and property "buybacks," in which drug defendants agree to pay cash to the task force to get their seized property returned.

Should the sheriff pick up the responsibilities for forfeiture, evidence and property, the Carroll County commissioners would become the seizing agent. Under that scenario, the money realized from forfeitures and buybacks would go to the county's general fund unless the commissioners direct otherwise.

If the state police become the seizing agents, proceeds from buybacks and forfeitures would go directly into the state's general fund.

Either way, the task force's operations -- except for officers' salaries, which are paid by the agency they work for -- would have to be budgeted by the county commissioners.

Barton F. Walker III, the assistant state's attorney who coordinates the task force, said he and other members of the drug group's advisory board have yet to decide what to do after July 1.

"We want to do everything we can to keep the task force as productive and viable as possible," he said Friday. "When you have to make adjustments because of these types of situations, you don't want to lose any efficiency. But you're not going to eliminate drug trafficking by bureaucratic muddling."

The "bureaucratic muddling" Mr. Walker refers to is the county's audit of the way the task force handles proceeds from forfeitures and buy-backs. While county officials and task force members say the group's finances have been looked at by the county annually, the current audit is the first formal one.

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