Home Opinion Greg Blass Seized assets bring big bucks to county law enforcement — but who’s...

Seized assets bring big bucks to county law enforcement — but who’s watching the till?

As we start the new year, what are we to make of Suffolk County’s multi-millions of dollars in secret money, seized from criminals, and used in all kinds of ways by law enforcement? Known as the asset forfeiture fund, it contains around $25 million at any given time, and is shared by the Suffolk County police, sheriff, district attorney and in a small amount by the county probation department. All 50 states have some form of asset forfeiture fund. But is it sound public policy for law enforcement to keep money it seizes? If yes, should there be some oversight?

In an article on July 13, 2014 about asset forfeiture, Newsday reported that both Nassau and Suffolk police departments alone auctioned more than $31 million worth of seized property. They also explained how it is used for high-tech surveillance equipment, out-of-state conferences, undercover drug buys, and training.

The formula for seizing the money, according to state law, is simply whether there is probable cause that a crime is being committed. It’s very hard to get this seized property back if it was taken from innocent owners, which happens, but for the most part, it’s evil money confiscated from tried and true evildoers. Seized and then auctioned vehicles, cash and homes from federal and local probes, mostly illegal drug deals, make up the most common forms of seized property in Suffolk County, according to Suffolk’s comptroller’s office.

If the feds are involved, they will take about a 30 percent share, with the rest going to the local PD. The East End police departments usually get last dibs on seized property from our area, particularly if the county police or DA or the Feds are involved, as they invariably are in fighting crime where significant assets come into play.

What’s much harder is getting a handle on how the money is used and who decides. Some have argued that cash-strapped law enforcement agencies are improperly motivated to seize personal property, creating a profit motive for policing. One has to consider a comment from attorney Larry Salzman from Virginia, whose firm specializes in representing people who were wrongly targeted by forfeiture laws. He described a “really perverse financial incentive for police and prosecutors to take more money than they might otherwise take – [asset forfeiture] diverts law enforcement resources toward the pursuit of property and money, rather than public safety.”

This is not to say that seized monies are not put to good use – but how are we to know? On the plus side is the recent donation of asset forfeiture fund-purchased police radio equipment that Suffolk provided to the East End PDs. Then, on the other hand, there are the controversial bonuses the outgoing DA paid to his staff prosecutors. The new, recently elected DA denounced this use of asset forfeiture fund monies when campaigning. Likewise indignant was Suffolk’s county executive. Since Election Day, however, each suspiciously refuses to comment anymore on AFF, at least openly.

Enter the Suffolk County Legislature, with a checkered history in addressing AFF issues. Should AFF bucks go to more plain clothes police, or a DWI program, or a conference at Gurney’s Inn in Montauk? Issues like these occurred in Nassau’s PD versus their county legislators. But at least Nassau has been open about how they spend AFF, and even how they decide their spending.

When it comes to seized assets in Suffolk County, the power elite keep a lid on all of it. The current, departing DA is mum about AFF spending, and the Suffolk PD is no better. In 2004, in a move out of character for any CFO, the then Suffolk comptroller asked the county legislature to relieve him of auditing the AFF system here, saying he was too busy. The SC legislature quickly approved. This has left the PD and DA to hire their own auditors, whose monitoring of AFF verges on weak to obscure, and not according to generally accepted auditing standards, as described by several county officials too intimidated to allow attribution.

Intimidated? Consider the recent effort by one Suffolk legislator to create an oversight mechanism of how county law enforcement spends seized assets. It seemed so logical a proposal, and had considerable support, but all that suddenly changed. Another legislator, herself solidly behind the proposal, complained that the effort to stop the measure came only a couple of days before the vote. Calling this “upsetting,” she dutifully jumped ship.

Consider how the new DA’s transition team, in preparation for his taking office this month, has since Election Day been holding its meetings inappropriately in the county executive’s office, with the county executive in regular attendance. Together, these two officials actively joined with various union bosses to peel away support for the AFF oversight bill. Inevitably, the sponsor tabled his legislation, carping that Suffolk’s AFF involves a “substantial amount of money that is off-budget.” He’s right about that – it’s in the tens of millions. As for the non-partisan analysts in the legislature’s Budget Review Office, they ran from this long ago, with the excuse that AFF isn’t technically part of the county budget.

Consider how the NYS Constitution comes into play: by definition, the legislative branch of government is the oversight branch. It is where we the people have the largest direct role, where elections are most frequent, where the people’s money and how it is used are most publicized. Suffolk’s power brokers don’t go for any of that.

What lies well hidden is the sordid handiwork of the county executive, DA-elect and union bosses in killing a bill that deserved far better than this. God forbid they give the legislative process a chance to work, with committee review, expert input, public hearings and amendments along the way.

Moreover, the shameless death of the AFF oversight bill illustrates a foreboding trend in government in Suffolk as well as in Riverhead Town Hall, Albany and Washington DC. Time and again, special interests combine with officials they own in the executive branch, and legislators or town board members scatter like poodles. These days in Suffolk, as everywhere, legislators simply cannot be the undisputed leaders at their popular best.

To add insult to injury, one police union leader, well aware of his colleagues’ shenanigans in all this, said to the press, after the bill met its fate, of course, that he really liked the bill after all. He cynically went on to praise the transparency in the use of seized assets that this bill would have fostered. The “good cop, bad cop” razzle-dazzle never fails.

In any event, one can only wonder about what’s really at the bottom of the crude, condescending bullying used to kill this effort. The county comptroller, the one in office now, is by no means “too busy” to tackle this. To that end, in a couple of weeks, he will release his own audit of just the SCPD’s use of AFF monies. This is as it should be. But the people certainly have an absolute right to scrutinize even further than audits what happens with property seized in their name.

Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg