It's not cars and drugs, it's money and power


October 12, 1997|By BRIAN SULLAM

DON'T BE SURPRISED if the pitched battle between Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary and State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee over the handling of forfeited vehicles isn't quickly settled.

Both sides seem to think that there is a lot at stake here.

After listening to the principals and reading the bitter exchange of correspondence over this past summer, one image comes to mind: They are behaving like two jackals snarling over a smelly carcass.

Mr. Gary alleges Mr. Weathersbee has "broken the law" by failing to file the proper paperwork after seizing cars from people who were caught with small amounts of drugs. He also alleges that Mr. Weathersbee's office violated county law by selling a 1991 Toyota cheaply to a young Severn man who is trying to raise himself and his half-brother out of a morass of poverty, drugs and crime.

Mr. Weathersbee responds that the controversy is designed to damage his chances for re-election in 1998. Mr. Weathersbee, a Democrat, knows that Mr. Gary, a Republican, would like to see him defeated.

For people unconvinced of the wisdom of seizing cars from people possessing small amounts of drugs, this nasty public dispute exposes the misguided motivations behind this policy.

While Police Chief Larry W. Tolliver, Messrs. Weathersbee and Gary and other defenders of this policy bleat about how seizing cars helps to reduce drug use, we now see the real motive: control of money and bureaucratic power.

The smelly carcass at stake here is the several hundred cars that the county now seizes annually. Since Chief Tolliver began his "zero tolerance" policy last February, the county has seized about 260 cars.

Empire building

Handling these seizures requires staff. To people inside government, that equates to empire building.

As long as the state's attorney controls forfeitures, the office receives an annual appropriation for the Forfeiture Asset Seizure Team, a five-member group that handles the automobile forfeitures. They also are available for other investigative duties.

If County Attorney Phillip Scheibe were to gain control of forfeitures, then the FAST staff would join his office, increasing the size of his operation.

Bureaucratic one-upmanship is not the only factor at work.

Mr. Gary would like to take control of forfeiture just to shut down Mr. Weathersbee's investigative staff. While none of the recent "scandals," such as the graft at the county landfill or allegations that $50,000 may have been looted from the county detention center, involves Mr. Gary or close associates, they are politically damaging.

Mr. Gary apparently believes the way to squelch bad publicity is to take control of these investigations. Earlier this year, he blew up when County Auditor Teresa Sutherland began probing finances at the jail. Mr. Gary demanded that she follow procedures and notify him of irregularities.

Now he is claiming that Mr. Weathersbee "broke the law" by filing court affidavits saying that Mr. Tolliver personally reviewed each seizure when he did not. But the executive overstates Mr. Weathersbee's action.

Not a criminal violation

Breaking the law usually connotes a criminal violation. While state law calls for the police chiefs to review the circumstances of each seizure, failing to have Mr. Tolliver sign off on the paperwork is not a criminal violation by any stretch. It is a technicality, albeit an important one that could be used to invalidate the forfeitures that have taken place.

This procedural shortcut, while wrong, does not rise to the level where the presence of the State Prosecutor is needed.

The other alleged transgression involves the charge that Gordon Marsh, an investigator in Mr. Weathersbee's office, gave a seized vehicle to a "friend."

This charge disintegrated under closer examination. The beneficiary of Mr. Marsh's largess was Tavon Johnson, a young man known to audiences of the national TV talk shows as a hero for trying to make a decent life for himself and his half-brother, whom he adopted because their late mother was consumed by drugs.

What really is at stake is control of the disposal of seized cars. Mr. Weathersbee has held three direct auctions to the public. Mr. Scheibe claims that county code requires the purchasing office to dispose of the cars, which means they will be turned over to Colonial Auctions, a Lothian company owned by a political supporter of Mr. Gary.

After you scrape away the heated rhetoric, what do you have?

Two bureaucracies fighting over the spoils of a misguided policy that confiscates property from people who have not even been convicted of a crime.

If these law enforcement officials continue this kind of petty public squabbling, public support for "zero tolerance" will turn into disgust.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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