RIVERHEAD, N.Y. – In a bipartisan 15 to 3 vote, the Suffolk County Legislature passed a major reform that empowers the Public Safety Committee with new oversight into how money is being spent out of the asset forfeiture fund. Deputy Presiding Officer Rob Calarco introduced IR 1645 in response to news reports that Former District Attorney Thomas Spota and his office used asset forfeiture funds to pay bonuses to Assistant District Attorney’s last year.
Money and assets seized by law enforcement officials in the investigation of a crime are distributed by the Federal Government to local law enforcement organizations that were involved in the arrests. Under Federal rules the Suffolk County Police Department, Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, Suffolk County Probation, and District Attorney’s office are authorized to use these funds, which can be in the millions, to supplement their budgets and help enhance their crime fighting capabilities with new technology and equipment. The Department of Justice rules also require that all expenditures be made in compliance with local laws. The bonuses paid to Assistant District Attorneys were outside of their normal pay schedule and made without the authorization of Legislature.
“This is a positive step for transparency and open government in Suffolk County,” said Deputy Presiding Officer Calarco. “The bill brings millions of dollars out of the shadows and into the public’s view. It ensures Suffolk County residents that there are public servants working to protect them and not to enrich themselves.”
IR 1645, “A Local Law To Enhance Oversight Of Asset Forfeiture Funds,” establishes a three person review of all expenditures from the Asset Forfeiture fund above $20,000. That panel consists of the County Executive, Presiding Officer, and Chairperson of the Public Safety Committee. Any member of that panel can delay the purchase for further review and approval of the full Public Safety Committee. If the Committee rejects that proposed purchase, the applying agency can petition for a review by the full Legislature. The bill also prohibits paying bonuses unless it is otherwise allowed under County law.
"Legislator Calarco’s bill addresses highly questionable past practices under former District Attorney Tom Spota, like using forfeiture money to hand out bonuses with no legal authorization,” said County Executive Steve Bellone. “This legislation will produce a better structure with greater transparency to enhance the County's efforts to improve public trust."
“Asset forfeiture is a tremendous tool for law enforcement to take the ill-gotten gains of criminals and invest those funds into technology and initiatives to increase public safety. I thank Legislator Calarco for working in close collaboration with my office and our law enforcement partners to create this legislation, which ensures accountability and transparency for this critical program while still promoting public safety,” said District Attorney Timothy Sini.
“Asset forfeiture brings in a significant funding stream for our law enforcement agencies, and this legislation encourages open government, transparency and accountability. I thank Deputy Presiding Officer Calarco for his diligent work to create a new policy all stakeholders can support,” said Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory.
"The use of asset forfeiture funds are intended to compliment the work done by governmental agencies to prevent, investigate and prosecute criminal activity. While we all support the use of these funds to enhance public safety, it must be done with an appropriate level of scrutiny to ensure confidence that the allocation of these funds by an agency is for a proper use," said Legislator Kara Hahn, a co-sponsor of the bill who also authored the County's recently launched asset forfeiture fund reporting policy. "Oversight through pre-purchase approvals and scheduled reporting requirements, I believe, serve as safeguards to assure the public that the use of these once ill-begotten funds is for their safety and not any one person's, or agencies, personal benefit."