Drug task force audit released

August 19, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

In an abrupt reversal of what they said earlier this week, the Carroll County commissioners released their 18-month-long audit of the drug task force yesterday.

At a meeting Monday with officials from Westminster and the task force, the commissioners said that the report -- which mildly criticized the drug enforcement group's administrative procedures but gave it a clean bill of fiscal health -- would not be released for several weeks.

But without explanation, the commissioners made the 33-page report available at 4:30 p.m. yesterday after county offices had closed. The only person given access to the report before yesterday was State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman, who received a copy on Aug. 12. His responses to the audit also were released yesterday afternoon.

The commissioners had come under increasing pressure from Westminster officials -- particularly Mayor W. Benjamin Brown, Police Chief Sam R. Leppo and City Council President Kenneth A. Yowan -- to make the audit public.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell said last night he was outvoted yesterday morning by his two colleagues in a decision to release the audit. He wanted to wait until he returned from a week-long vacation in the Midwest before releasing the report.

The audit report -- itself under attack from task force and city officials -- criticized the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force for withholding information from county auditors.

"While information required by the auditors to perform an effective evaluation . . . was eventually provided to the auditors, on many occasions the auditors were challenged pertaining to their authority to perfrom the audit . . ." the report said.

In his response, Mr. Hickman said the task force balked at releasing certain investigative files because such information is confidential. He said -- and has said for more than a year -- that all financial information requested of the task force was provided to county auditors.

Procedures studied

He said the task force was told by "two members of the Board of Commissioners" that "this was a financial audit and not a performance audit." The final document was a performance audit, which, in addition to finances, looks at procedures and policies of an organization.

The audit raised concerns about the reliance on so-called buy-back agreements as a method for financing the task force's operations.

In a buy-back, owners of seized property can avoid forfeiting it if they pay a fee -- usually hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The audit report said the task force raised $45,000 through 49 buy-backs over a 12-month period.

"We recommend that policies and procedures be formally written for this process," the audit says.

Mr. Hickman, in his response, scoffed at such a written policy. "We have found that there are too many variables in cases to draft formal rigid policies," he wrote.

He also blasted the auditors and commissioners for the length of the audit. He wrote that the audit "is a good example of a situation in which a group of government workers who do not even know what their assignment is, spent months disrupting one of the most efficient government operations in Carroll County."

"During these past 16 months, the members of the task force . . . have been burdened with a cloud over their reputations. Carroll editorials in The Baltimore Sun have used this situation to promote their anti-drug war bias with attacks. . . . They were free to make up accusations based on false facts and innuendo because the auditors did not promptly and completely relate the facts. . . . The audit soundly impeaches them, a reward they richly deserve . . ."

Timothy D. Hartman, the county's chief internal auditor, yesterday defended the audit and its assertion that Mr. Hickman and the task force resisted the release of information.

He said it was the task force's resistance -- he cited Mr. Hickman's decision in February to shut all task force files to county auditors -- that caused the report's delay.

"We stand by the recommendations and by what we said," Mr. Hartman said last night.

The audit makes several recommendations that have become outdated since Chief Leppo's decision last month to stop handling the drug group's finances, evidence and forfeitures. The chief cited the length and scope of the audit when he stopped performing those duties, which he has done since the task force was formed four years ago.

Suggestions

Among the audit's suggestions:

* Form a "cost center" through the county government through which all task force revenue and expenses will flow. The task force already has proposed this, and is ready to make annual budget requests through the county commissioners. The group also has proposed an annual audit by an outside firm.

* Adopt state police procedures for the seizure and storage of vehicles, and keep the seized vehicles parked at the county maintenance center and not at the Northern Landfill. According to Mr. Hickman, such procedures are being followed, and the task force has for years told county officials it wants to store the cars at the maintenance center.

* Develop a written agreement as to the division of proceeds from the sale of forfeited goods. Before Chief Leppo bowed out of the task force, Westminster took 50 percent of all forfeiture proceeds, and the task force the rest.

This issue is the sole stumbling block between Westminster and the commissioners in their quest to draft a new task force agreement. The commissioners don't want to give the city a set percentage of the proceeds, and the city believes it is entitled to some of the money because it supplies an officer to the task force.

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