Dispute over forfeitures could be nearing end State to mediate fight over control of program

October 07, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A fight over who should run Anne Arundel County's drug-asset forfeiture program may be nearing an end, with the state attorney general's office stepping in to help negotiate.

Meanwhile, it appears unlikely that the county will force a needy 21-year-old Glen Burnie man who allegedly received a car improperly through that program to surrender the vehicle, county spokeswoman Lisa Ritter said.

Two police officers and an assistant county attorney have been accused of breaking the law by working with a nonprofit organization to donate a car to Tavon Johnson, a college student who took custody of his 15-year-old brother after their mother abandoned them.

"Mr. Johnson did nothing wrong," said Ritter. "He just so happened to be an innocent party in this whole conflict and there is no point in punishing an innocent victim."

The administration of County Executive John G. Gary recently accused State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee's office of mishandling the sale of Johnson's car and perhaps more than 100 others seized from drug suspects.

The county raises more than $500,000 a year through the forfeiture program by auctioning vehicles, homes and other property seized in connection with drug crimes. The money is used for local crime-fighting.

The Gary administration, saying Weathersbee had refused to remedy problems in the program, said Aug. 25 that it would take control of the program away from the state's attorney.

Weathersbee argued that his office had done nothing wrong and that Gary was trying to strip the office of funds it uses to investigate allegations of corruption in county government.

Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill, head of litigation in the state attorney general's office, said in a letter sent yesterday that he would be willing to meet with both sides this week to help negotiate.

A source close to the discussions said the two sides appeared to be moving closer together.

The state's attorney's office might be willing to get written approval from the police chief before it forces drug suspects to forfeit cars, which Gary has said is a requirement of state law.

In addition, the state's attorney might agree to turn over responsibility for auctioning the cars to the county, which would be expected to use a private auction company, the source said.

Weathersbee hopes Gary will back off on his threat to seize control of the program from the state's attorney's office.

Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer said yesterday that Gary did not intend to seize control of the program, but only to make sure it was being run in compliance with the law.

"If he [Weathersbee] makes these concessions, that's great because that's a step in the right direction," Plymyer said.

No date has been set for the two sides to meet with the state attorney general's office.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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