Prosecutor's office probed on forfeiture Allegations target program to seize assets from drug sales

'It's a damn mess'

State's attorney says accusations fabricated by political enemies

September 26, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The state prosecutor is investigating allegations that the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office has mishandled a $500,000-a-year drug asset forfeiture program and in May gave a car to the acquaintance of an investigator without holding a public auction.

The program is similar to those used across the United States in which cars, boats, jewelry and homes seized from convicted drug dealers are auctioned to help pay for local crime-fighting efforts.

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, a Democrat, said yesterday that the allegations were fabricated by his political enemies to discredit him in advance of his 1998 re-election campaign.

The complaint was brought to the state prosecutor's office this summer by the administration of Republican County Executive John G. Gary.

fTC Weathersbee charged that the Gary administration appears to be trying to weaken the state's attorney's office so that it cannot investigate potentially embarrassing allegations that $50,000 is missing from inmate accounts at the county jail.

The salaries of two of Weathersbee's three investigators, including that of Roland Rose, who is heading the jail inquiry, are paid through the forfeiture program, Weathersbee said.

He also charged that the Gary administration is trying to seize control of the program as a way to pull the plug on about $230,000 that Weathersbee's office could use to fund investigations into county government and other areas.

The rest of the $594,690 brought in through the forfeiture program last year was used by county government for law enforcement efforts, Weathersbee said.

"This whole thing has to do with taking away the independence (( of the prosecutor's office and removing the state's attorney for the next election," he said.

County Attorney Phillip Scheibe countered that the state prosecutor's investigation has nothing to do with politics.

"It's a damn mess, that's what this is," said Scheibe, who represents the Gary administration. "This is about the county taxpayers. You can't just give the taxpayers' property away."

Scheibe said that in late July or early August, his office complained to the state prosecutor about three matters:

A 1991 Toyota worth from $7,000 to $8,000 wound up in the possession of an acquaintance of a state's attorney investigator in May instead of being auctioned, as it should have been.

In this case and perhaps a number of others, the state's attorney's office appeared to be avoiding a legal requirement that it receive written approval from county Police Chief Larry W. Tolliver before it can force the owners of seized cars to forfeit them.

In at least four cases, employees of the state's attorney's office falsely claimed to judges that Tolliver had authorized the forfeiture of vehicles.

Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer said: "We have reason to believe that an impropriety was going on for a period of time that needs to be corrected. How much time it's been going on, we don't know."

About 170 cars were seized by county police last year, but fewer than 20 were auctioned because most were returned to their owners, according to the state's attorney's office.

Tolliver said he first suspected something was wrong with the forfeiture program during an auction of several vehicles in the lot behind police headquarters in April.

Chief noticed Toyota

Tolliver said he noticed a Burgundy 1991 Toyota that he expected could be sold for $7,000 or $8,000 because it was in fairly good condition.

When he asked an employee of the state's attorney's office, which runs the auctions, if the car was going to be sold, he said he was told that it was not.

Tolliver said he was shocked to learn that state's attorney investigator Gordon March was going to give the Toyota to a man named Tavon Johnson without an auction.

Johnson is a Freetown resident whom March had been trying to help through a nonprofit organization called Take Back Our Streets, the state's attorney's office said.

$500 for the car

Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the office, said that on May 18, the nonprofit organization paid the county $500 for the car and then gave it to Johnson, who was struggling to take care of a younger brother with little help from their parents.

The person who sold the car to the nonprofit organization was Trevor Kiessling, an assistant county state's attorney who wanted to help a man struggling to get off welfare, Riggin said.

Bill Roessler, a deputy county state's attorney, said it would be ironic if the state's attorney's office was punished for an act of charity.

"Maybe Trevor shouldn't have helped him," Roessler said.

"Maybe he should have kicked him," he added sarcastically.

According to some in the state's attorney's office, the investigation is related to the fact that March is a member of the county Democratic Central Committee and a supporter of Theodore Sophocleus, the state's attorney's administrative officer who ran against Gary in 1994.

Transferred on Aug. 11

March, who was assigned to the state's attorney's office but technically is an employee of the Police Department, was transferred by Tolliver on Aug. 11 to a phone-answering job.

Although March had a dozen open investigations, he was ordered not to communicate with the state's attorney's office, Riggin said.

The Gary administration may also be seeking to have a private company conduct the auctions in a move toward privatization, Roessler and Weathersbee charged.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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