Auditor, DA's To Work Together To Fix Thorny Problem

Saturday, February 10th 2007, 2:14 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A litany of misconduct linked to drug forfeiture money is threatening to jar the public's trust of prosecutors elected to be the good guys working to send the bad guys to jail, officials say.

A state audit released last week showed that about $7,000 in drug funds is missing from the safe in the Cleveland County District Attorney's Office in Norman.

It was requested by newly installed District Attorney Greg Mashburn, who said he is working to make sure nothing like that happens again.

Former Cleveland County District Attorney Tim Kuykendall has given the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation a list of 20 names of people who had access to the safe.

State Auditor and Inspector Jeff McMahan was amazed so many people had access to cash in Kuykendall's office. ``Any guy out there operating a 7-11 store knows better than that. That's asking for trouble,'' McMahan said.

Other cases through the years have raised concern that some prosecutors are using drug forfeiture money as slush funds to do with as they wish.

``Right now there is concern out there that these funds are being used for things other than a public purpose,'' McMahan said.

One prosecutor several years ago bought a plane with forfeited money with the idea of using it in investigations, he said. The prosecutor, now deceased, was defeated for re-election. The new district attorney subsequently resigned when questions arose about his travel claims.

One notable case in 1996 involved embezzlement by a district attorney of more than $80,000. Paul Anderson, a highly respected Payne County prosecutor at the time, served nine months in a federal prison and has since made restitution for the missing money.

In 2006, Richard L. Gray was indicted by the multicounty grand jury for allegedly embezzling almost $9,000.

Gray was the district attorney for Adair, Cherokee, Sequoyah and Wagoner counties. He was defeated in the Democratic primary runoff last year in his bid for re-election. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Again, the drug money Gray was accused of taking was kept in a safe and came from cash seized by a drug task force during raids in 2004.

Two of Gray's aides were earlier indicted _ one on a perjury charge and another on a charge involving methamphetamine taken from a crime scene.

For years, the state auditor's office has been in a running battle with some prosecutors over how their offices account for cash and property they seize during investigations of illegal activity.

``Anyone who knows this business knows this is one of those snakes that we have to handle. It's a thorny problem,'' said former state narcotics bureau attorney Scott Rowland, now the top assistant to another new district attorney _ Oklahoma County's David Prater.

Critical audits of accounting procedures of former Muskogee County District Attorney John David Luton were a factor in his defeat in his re-election bid last year. Luton said another official in his office handled forfeited property.

Suzanne Atwood, coordinator at the Oklahoma District Attorney's Council, said the state agency is working to establish guidelines for handling drug forfeiture funds. She said a training session will be held in March for prosecutors and another will be held later in the year.

McMahan said he is hopeful the problems will finally be corrected. ``For the first time, the DA's Council came to us and said, 'We've got a problem. We want to be a part of the process to correct it.' So that's a good step. We're all on the same page right now.''

Richard L. Smotherman, president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, said criminal activity by some prosecutors is embarrassing to upstanding district attorneys.

``Certainly, anything an individual district attorney does makes all of us look bad. The majority of us do have procedures that will alleviate these types of problems,'' said Smotherman, district attorney for Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties.

He said forfeiture money is deposited daily by his office with the county treasurer. ``We don't maintain cash funds. We don't keep it in a safe,'' he said.

He said some district attorneys have felt the need to retain seized drug money so it can be used as evidence.

``You lose the evidentiary value of it to some extent'' when it is deposited with the treasurer, Smotherman said. ``But that's just a tradeoff that we have to be willing to do.''

He said his office makes a photocopy of all cash, including individual bills, as the ``next best'' evidence that can be used at trial.