By Clifton Adcock, Oklahoma Watch
More than 100 Oklahoma law enforcement agencies received $47.5 million over more than a decade through a controversial U.S. Department of Justice program that shared forfeited private assets with state and local agencies, records show.
Nearly three-fourths of the money and property went to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, which, according to a federal audit, spent about $2 million of it over three years on questionable purposes.
Despite the audit and the slashing of the federal program in January because of abuses, a state official said the Highway Patrol plans to keep seizing private assets and pursuing forfeiture in court.
"We'll conduct business like we always have," said Stephen Krise, general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, of which the Highway Patrol is a part. Referring to the curtailing of the U.S. Justice Department program, he added, “It’s a minimal impact.”
One likely change is that there will be fewer forfeiture filings in federal court and less involvement of the federal government, Krise said.
State and local law enforcement still has the right under state law to confiscate assets believed to be tied to drug trafficking and other crimes. They can take ownership through forfeiture proceedings filed in district courts regardless of whether the suspect is charged or convicted.
The amounts forfeited and the use of cash and property have spurred allegations that authorities are more focused on reaping revenue than bringing offenders to justice. Law enforcement officials deny this.
Saying the forfeiture program is flawed, state Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, has drafted legislation that would place limits on forfeitures, including prohibiting them without a conviction. District attorneys and sheriff’s offices argue this would hamper their efforts to combat drug trafficking.
Loveless’ bill would not affect the federal “Equitable Sharing” program for asset forfeiture, but criticism of that program echoes that of forfeitures allowed under state laws.
With equitable sharing, state and local law enforcement agencies were able to share forfeited assets with the Justice Department either through joint investigations with DOJ agencies or by having a DOJ agency “adopt” assets confiscated by state or local agencies. With adoption, a state or local agency usually kept about 80 percent of the cash or property.
From 2004 to 2014, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol received $33.6 million of cash and proceeds from sale of property seized under the equitable sharing program, according to Justice Department records obtained by Oklahoma Watch.
The next biggest recipients were the Tulsa Police Department, with nearly $2 million, and the Oklahoma City Police Department, with about $1.6 million.
Other recipients were small city police agencies, tribal law enforcement, district attorney’s offices and their drug task forces, metro police departments and sheriff’s offices. Other agencies were the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture and the Oklahoma National Guard.
In January, citing abuses, the Justice Department severely curtailed the sharing program, limiting it to cases involving seizures related to public safety, such as weapons.
Among problems that had surfaced were findings in the 2013 Justice Department audit of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
According to the audit, which covered fiscal 2010 through 2012, the Highway Patrol spent $1.7 million in equitable sharing assets on “unallowable, questioned” costs and $210,216 on “unsupported, questioned” costs.
During that period, the agency received nearly $8 million through the sharing program and spent about $7.8 million.
The largest questioned cost was a $996,088 payment to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.
The November 2009 payment came after the Highway Patrol had entered into a long-term lease agreement with the Turnpike Authority for use of a soon-to-be-constructed troop headquarters. The Highway Patrol had agreed to share some of the construction costs, the audit states.
The payment “was characterized in the license agreement as an ‘initial license fee,’ but was in substance a 45 percent share of the construction costs,” the audit says.
Because the Highway Patrol did not obtain Justice Department approval before making a capital expenditure, and did not obtain any ownership interest in the property, the expense violated the equitable sharing agreement, the audit says.
The Highway Patrol contested that finding, saying it would get full use of the property for the estimated lifetime of the building, according to a July 15, 2013, letter from the Department of Public Safety to the Justice Department.
The letter sought an exemption from the prohibition against using forfeiture funds on construction costs for leased property.
The Justice Department’s criminal division said it did not have enough evidence to determine whether it fully concurred with the audit’s finding.
The Highway Patrol concurred with other findings in the audit and promised to remedy the issues.
The audit also shows $382,623 in salaries, benefits and overtime were paid to three Department of Public Safety employees whom Justice Department auditors considered non-law enforcement personnel – the asset forfeiture coordinator, an administrative programs officer and a communications officer.
“In order to prevent the appearance that one’s salary is contingent upon and potentially motivated by money that is seized;” the audit states, “participating agencies are not permitted to use equitable sharing funds to pay the salaries and benefits of existing positions, except in limited circumstances involving law enforcement officers.”
Other audit findings include:
Renovation costs of a DPS facility shared by the Highway Patrol and non-law enforcement sections.
Purchase of vehicles used by non-law enforcement personnel.
Use of equitable sharing property for non-law enforcement purposes.
Co-mingling of Justice Department and U.S. Department of Treasury equitable sharing funds.
Paying fees from equitable sharing funds to contractors performing administrative tasks and web design.
The purchase of two Ford F-150 pickup trucks that were originally used by law enforcement but later used by non-law enforcement.
Use of a forfeited 1998 Freightliner semi-tractor and semi utility trailer for commercial driver’s license training. Auditors said the trailer was used only in a single instance for law enforcement purposes.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.