Audit finds problems in drug-assets program State's attorney's office cited for errors, advised to improve accounting

December 23, 1997|By Neal Thompson and Tom Pelton | Neal Thompson and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

An audit of Anne Arundel County's $500,000-a-year drug-asset forfeiture program has uncovered numerous bookkeeping errors, sloppy handling of cash and a vehicle sold improperly to the spouse of an office employee.

The report by County Auditor Teresa Sutherland, which was obtained yesterday by The Sun, advised the county state's attorney's office to improve its accounting systems. The report was dated yesterday.

County Executive John G. Gary's office forwarded the report to the state prosecutor's office, which is conducting a criminal investigation of the program.

The investigation was prompted by a complaint in August from the Gary administration, which alleges that the state's attorney's office has mishandled the program, and that in May it gave a car to the acquaintance of an investigator without holding a public auction.

Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer said the audit was further evidence of wrongdoing.

Plymyer called the audit "very distressing," and said it indicated that the program was "chaotic."

Although the audit does not contain any evidence of theft by the state's attorney's office, Plymyer said the lack of internal controls over the money meant that cash could have disappeared without anyone knowing, which he said warrants further investigation.

"It would be irresponsible for a criminal investigator not to look into this," he said. "It certainly is conceivable that criminal behavior could have taken place with procedures this loose."

Gary and Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee have been debating whether Weathersbee's office should lose the program because of the paperwork problems.

Weathersbee has attributed the dispute to efforts to spoil his re-election bid.

Officials with both offices said yesterday that a compromise is in the works in which the state's attorney's office would have a smaller role in drug-asset forfeitures but not entirely lose control of them.

Under an agreement that could be made final in the next few days, Weathersbee's office would continue to file court papers for the forfeiture of the vehicles of suspected drug dealers.

But the county Police Department and controller's office would take over storage and handling of the vehicles and program finances, according to administration officials.

Plymyer said that despite the continuing criminal investigation, he is optimistic that in the next few days his office and the state's attorney's office will reach an agreement on how to reorganize the program and solve the problems.

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

County police seized about 170 cars in 1996, but fewer than 20 were auctioned because most were returned to their owners.

The auction of those cars and other possessions seized from drug suspects generated $594,690 used for local law enforcement efforts.

The state's attorney's office took control of the program in 1995.

The audit found that of 87 cars sold at auction between February 1996 and April 1997:

Ten were sold for less than the minimum amount they were supposed to be sold for.

Thirty-one were not awarded to the highest bidders, for reasons not made clear in the records.

Two cars were sold to county employees.

One car was sold to the spouse of a state's attorney's office employee, who received the vehicle improperly because the bid was dated after the auction deadline.

Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said the vehicle was a 10-year-old pickup truck sold for $3,010 to the husband of a victims' advocate who had no connection to the drug program. Riggin refused to identify him.

Riggin said $3,010 was the top bid on the vehicle and far exceeded the posted minimum bid of $2,300.

"It was handled poorly," Riggin said. "But no laws were broken, and no money was stolen."

The audit also revealed that 114 vehicles were forfeited in 1997 without the written permission of the police chief, which is required by law, county officials have said.

The report did not identify the two county employees who bought cars. Nor would Riggin, except to say they were a county firefighter and a laborer in the central services office who have no connection to the state's attorney's office.

"These cars were cars that were taken from drug dealers, and we don't feel comfortable giving out the names of the people with their cars," Riggin said.

Riggin said there was nothing illegal about county employees' purchasing the cars.

"If there was something amiss there, the county auditor would have reported it," she said.

The debate over the forfeiture program surfaced after Trevor A. Kiessling Jr., who supervises the auctioning of cars seized from drug suspects, apparently skirted procedures to give a 1991 Toyota Corolla to an impoverished Glen Burnie man, Tavon Johnson, 21, who needed a car to get to work.

The car was sold for $500, which was paid by a local charity.

Kiessling said he did not get written authorization from the police chief to sell the vehicle.

However, he claimed that police officials had told him it was not necessary.

Since the Gary administration learned about the sale to Johnson in late July, it has been working to take control of the program from Weathersbee's office.

Weathersbee, a Democrat, had complained that the allegations were fabricated by his political enemies to spoil his 1998 re-election campaign.

Specifically, Weathersbee accused Gary -- a Republican and a longtime political enemy -- of bringing frivolous charges as a way of halting funding for about two-thirds of Weathersbee's investigators, who were about to begin investigating allegations of missing funds at the county detention center.

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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