Official defends sale of seized car Assistant prosecutor says vehicle was sold to help needy man

September 28, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The head of an Anne Arundel County drug asset forfeiture program that is being investigated by the state for allegedly not following procedures and selling a car without holding an auction says it has done nothing wrong.

Trevor A. Kiessling Jr., who supervises the auctioning of cars seized from drug suspects, said his unit is guilty only of acting charitably toward an impoverished 21-year-old Glen Burnie man who needed a car to get to work.

The 1991 Toyota Corolla at the center of the investigation was donated to Tavon Johnson. Johnson has been honored in The Sun and on the "Montel Williams Show" for taking custody of his half-brother after their mother abandoned them and their fathers were jailed.

The administration of County Executive John G. Gary asked the state prosecutor's office this summer to investigate the forfeiture program, run by the state's attorney's office. The administration charged that in Johnson's case, and perhaps several others, the unit did not receive written permission from the police chief before it auctioned cars.

"If I've gained anything by this whole thing, it's only by helping someone off the welfare rolls so they can become a benefit to society," said Kiessling, an assistant county state's attorney. "And if that means I've benefited from all this, then I guess I have."

Kiessling and his boss, State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, maintain that the accusations were trumped up by Weathersbee's political enemies to spoil his chance for re-election next year.

County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe, who represents the Gary administration, insists the investigation is not political and involves serious allegations that public officials may have violated the law.

About 170 cars and other possessions of drug suspects were seized last year through the forfeiture program, and some of the cars were auctioned to generate $594,690 for local law enforcement efforts.

The state's attorney's office took control of the program in 1995 because of concerns that the company that has a contract to run auctions of county surplus property may have been handling its paperwork improperly, said Assistant State's Attorney William D. Roessler.

Melvin E. Richards, treasurer of Colonial Auction Service of Lothian, was charged in 1992 with making false entries on state forms that authorized the transfer of car titles, Roessler said.

Richards received probation before judgment on the charge, which allowed his record to be cleared after a year, said Timothy E. Maloney, Richards' lawyer. James Ryan, the county's purchasing officer, said he had no complaints about the company's performance.

County records and an interview with Kiessling tell the story of the Toyota that is the focus of the state investigation:

A 21-year-old Harwood resident named Jason Jeremy Knapp bought the used Corolla for $7,500 Dec. 9, 1995, from Brown's Toyota in Glen Burnie.

On April 1, 1996, county police responded to a complaint of disorderly young people in Edgewater and found Knapp and five others in his car with suspected marijuana and 29 suspected doses of LSD.

Police charged Knapp with possession of drugs and seized his car because they had charged him with possession of marijuana in the same car two months earlier. The earlier charges were dropped. The disposition of the April 1 charges could not be determined Friday.

The Corolla was held on an impoundment lot behind police headquarters in Millersville for more than a year. Along with seven cars donated to the county, the Toyota was flagged by Kiessling's unit not to be sold during an April 26 auction of 40 vehicles that brought in $44,806 for the county.

On May 18, a nonprofit organization called Take Back Our Streets, which had been helping Johnson, arranged with Kiessling to buy the car from the state's attorney's office for $500 and donate it to Johnson.

The county's Department of Social Services had donated a car to Johnson earlier to help him get a job. But that car "was a lemon" and broke down frequently, Kiessling said. So Kiessling said he thought it would be appropriate to replace the vehicle.

Kiessling said he did not get written authorization from the police chief to sell the vehicle. But he claimed that police officials had told him earlier that this was not necessary.

Scheibe, the county attorney, said the county never waived this requirement.

"There's one thing I hate and that's bureaucracy," Kiessling said. "I move on things and get them done. Maybe if I'd handled it more like a bureaucrat, we wouldn't have this problem."

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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