MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
This week we've heard how law enforcement agencies are seizing hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money on America's highways. Once the money is taken in though, there's little accountability or oversight. NPR has found dozens of cases where police and prosecutor's offices are getting in trouble for misspending confiscated cash. Most of the seized drug profits are used for legitimate law enforcement, but there are allegations that some police officials are using theirs as personal slush funds.
NPR's John Burnett has our final report on dirty money.
JOHN BURNETT: Camden County, Georgia is famous for Cumberland Island National Seashore, the Kings Bay Submarine Base, the historic town of St. Mary's and Sheriff Bill Smith. The tan, white-haired law man is now running for his seventh term. It's a dynasty. His father and grandfather were Camden County sheriffs before him. Here's his campaign song now playing on local radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CAMPAIGN AD)
Unidentified Man: Here's rough around the edges. He's lack that star that's on his chest. Oh, Bill Smith, he's still the best.
BURNETT: The 70-year-old sheriff's career has been subsidized by his remarkable success at seizing drug money off of Interstate 95, which runs through the county, north-south. Over the past decade and a half, his highway interdiction team has grabbed more than $20 million from drug money couriers.
BILL SMITH: I have to say Camden County is probably been one of the most successful agencies on the Eastern Seaboard in seizing money belonging to the drug dealers.
BURNETT: With this endowment, he's built a law enforcement empire in this quiet pastoral county, tucked between the Florida border and the Atlantic Ocean. First, there was the new sheriff's substation.
SMITH: We spent about $3 million on going in and redoing the whole establishment there, and putting in a 911 center, state of the art, best equipment money can buy.
BURNETT: Then Smith bought vehicles for other county departments and for neighboring law enforcement agencies. He purchased boats that some wisecrack are his Camden County Navy. And he created an estimated $600,000 in scholarships.
SMITH: And we've had quite a few individuals from our department to go and get their associate's degree, their bachelor's degree and master's degrees.
BURNETT: And the purchases got more exotic. There was the $90,000 Dodge Viper for the sheriff's DARE anti-drug program.
Lieutenant William Terrell opens a trailer parked in the lot behind the substation to reveal the gleaming low-slung sports car.
WILLIAM TERRELL: The year we took this out to Las Vegas for the national DARE convention, it was the number one DARE car in the country
BURNETT: The sheriff spent so much seized drug money that the regional newspaper in Jacksonville, The Florida Times-Union, began to write stories about it - about the quarter million dollars he gave to his alma mater, The Citadel, for a scholarship. And the $12,000 he gave to the spinal cord center in Atlanta, where his paralytic son had been treated. But the expenditure that really raised eyebrows the highest was the $50 a week he paid to county jail trustees, the sheriff says, to do public works and to teach them a work ethic. His chief critic says he used them to build a weekend home called "The Ponderosa."
Steve Berry, a lawyer and novelist, sits on a Camden County Commission which sued Smith over control of the forfeiture money.
STEVE BERRY: The Ponderosa is probably the pinnacle of the abuse. The sheriff buys a piece of property in the center of the county, little old house on it, takes inmates out there, they rebuild the entire house into a very nice party house.
BURNETT: Sheriff Smith.
SMITH: That's just completely untrue. I can't believe Mr. Berry would say something like that. It must be a figment of his imagination. I think you probably know he's a fiction writer, and he's pretty good with that. But that's not true.
BURNETT: The allegations in general, that Sheriff Smith misused forfeiture money, and in particular, that he used it to pay inmate labor, were serious enough that a federal grand jury in Savannah is now looking into them. Federal guidelines specify that forfeiture money is to be used strictly for law enforcement purposes. Smith would not comment on the investigation, except to say all the expenditures were legal, documented, and he can account for every penny. The accusation that Sheriff Bill Smith used forfeiture funds at his whim is at the heart of wider criticism that there are scant controls over how seized drug money is used.
Again, Commissioner Steve Berry.
BERRY: And that's really the root of problem. You have one man in total control of $25 to $30 million, with no checks and balances. Now you can imagine what would happen at that point. I mean, the old adage of, you know, absolute power corrupts absolutely is proven perfectly there.
BURNETT: Around the nation, there are plenty of other examples of misspent forfeiture money: running clothes for the Austin Police Department, bomber jackets for the Colorado State Patrol, football tickets for the Fulton County, Georgia D.A.'s office. You could say, so what? Cops have a tough job and they don't get paid much, so let them have some new running shoes and a few end-zone seats. The investigation in Camden County, Georgia, however, shows the potential for abuse when a public safety official has unfettered access to millions of dollars, with little accountability.
Here in Texas, there's growing concern about the brazen misuse of seized drug funds, which are mammoth. Last year, Texas law enforcement confiscated more than $125 million in drug assets.
JOHN WHITMIRE: Criminal justice committee, come to order. (unintelligible).
Unidentified Woman: Whitmire.
BURNETT: Two weeks ago, State Senator John Whitmire called a hearing of the Criminal Justice Committee to look into allegations he's been hearing about loose spending by district attorneys. Under law, not only the police, but prosecutors also get to keep a portion of the proceeds from the drug-money cases they handle. He heard about the D.A. in Kimble County who took his office to Hawaii for a training seminar, and a D.A. in Montgomery County who wrote a check to a political buddy's golf tournament fundraiser. Speaking to a hearing room full of stone-faced D.A.s in blue suits and cowboy boots, Whitmire said there ought to be a law to go after prosecutors who spend money on, quote, "toys for the department."
WHITMIRE: If there's not one, we damn sure need to get one. Because it's going to ruin a very good program if we don't tighten it up, put accountability and cut out the abuses.
BURNETT: There are two asset forfeiture systems: state and federal. The one in Washington exerts more oversight, yet the inspector general only audits an average of only five law enforcement agencies a year - out of more than 8,000 participants. There was no audit, for instance, of the Camden County Sheriff's Office, even though there had been complaints about Smith's extravagant spending for years.
Richard Weber, chief of the Justice Department's asset forfeiture and money-laundering section, insists the controls are adequate and they're catching and correcting the small number of agencies that go astray.
RICHARD WEBER: We're talking about, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars, 8,000 or so recipients, and very few cases of abuse.
BURNETT: Weber concludes, forfeiture is one of the best law enforcement tools in the federal arsenal to fight drug trafficking.
WEBER: When you take away the money, and you take away the profit, then you're making a substantial, you know, impact - not only on that individual case, but on entire criminal networks.
BURNETT: But how much of an impact, really? Ninety interviews conducted with law enforcement officials, prosecutors and forfeiture attorneys around the nation, suggest that police agencies that claim they're helping to win the drug war by seizing piles of dirty money are mainly helping to boost their own budgets. And as we heard in Monday's report in the extreme, officers will use their badges to take case from drivers without any evidence they're involved in drug trafficking.
Fidel Gonzales is commander of a narcotics task force in South Texas located on a major smuggling corridor.
FIDEL GONZALES: For every $2 million that gets seized on the highways, it'll fit in a pinhead because you're making a dent on the cartel organization, but it's pretty much chump change for them.
BURNETT: In fact, the nation's top money laundering cop, Don Semesky, chief of financial investigations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, had this to say.
DON SEMESKY: You're not solving anything by taking the cash and declaring victory. You cannot deny enough cash by just taking the cash. There's too much cash involved. You can't win it by just that.
BURNETT: The exaggerated attention to seizing cash prompted the Domestic Highway Enforcement Project of the White House drug czar's office to urge more public safety agencies to refocus on the police work. The project's chairman, Jack Killorin, says officers should be chasing intelligence, as well as currency.
JACK KILLORIN: What we're trying to do is get people to move beyond the stop 'n' grab and get into the investigation of criminal organizations.
BURNETT: A good example is Operation Money Clip. Five years ago, a West Texas sheriff stopped a pickup on Interstate 10 and discovered $2.2 million in a hidden compartment. That single traffic stop led to investigations in 25 U.S. cities, 22 tons of illegal narcotics seized, and 83 people arrested.
BURNETT: Two deputies racially profiled Hispanic drivers on Interstate 95, pulled them over, and seized more than $9 million between 2000 and 2004. They said it was drug money, and the were convicted of skimming cash off the top. The sentencing judge commented they weren't enforcing the law at all. They would just go fishing.
BLOCK: That's the fourth in a series of reports from NPR's John Burnett, who joins us from his base in Austin, Texas. And John, were you able to get a handle in your reporting for this series on how widespread a practice this asset forfeiture abuse is?
BURNETT: Melissa, in the nine months that I spent tracking this, I found there was really very little paper trail here. There's not a lot of reporting on asset forfeiture abuse like there was in the 1990s when it was higher profile, leading up to the federal reforms. It's difficult to find the cases in which people say that they had cash effectively robbed from them by officers in highway stops because there are so few challenges to these forfeiture cases - lawyers would say because it's very difficult to challenge and it's expense. And the police say they're not challenged because people are guilty. It's difficult to find out how extensive it is, but we know it's happening.
BLOCK: You mentioned you interviewed 90 people for this series. Among those people, who seems to be the most concerned about the abuses?
BURNETT: This was really interesting, because I expected that it was going to be the sort the legalize drugs crowd and those, you know, who usually criticize war. But I found that my most passionate sources were law enforcement, senior law enforcement people who had a sense that the system is being abused, and unless it's cleaned up, there are going to be new laws that take the seized drug money away from them altogether. I can't tell you how many interviews I did when, after the microphone was off, you would get a police chief who would say, man, we know that, you know, this sheriff in a neighboring county is doing this and I've heard these stories and they've set up a forfeiture trap. And if they don't stop, they're going to ruin it for everybody.
BLOCK: So given that interest in cleaning things up, are there any efforts in that direction?
BURNETT: There have been some very mixed efforts to try to tighten up the forfeiture abuses, in particular to take money away from law enforcement so that there's not a financial incentive in policing. In Missouri and in Utah, they both tried to send money from law enforcement into education funds, and there was enormous resistance to that. In Texas, they tried to take money away from district attorneys and give it to - a part of it to the drug courts. And again, there was enormous resistance, and that attempt died. As one top DEA official in Washington told me, once they drink from that chalice, they get used to it.
BLOCK: Okay, John. Thanks very much.
BURNETT: My pleasure, Melissa.
BLOCK: That's NPR's John Burnett. And you can find all four parts of his series on Dirty Money at npr.org.