In the wake of the Kingston Police Department’s withdrawal from the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team, Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum accused County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach of meddling and needlessly prolonging discussions on the division of assets seized by the multi-agency task force. At a Sept. 19 meeting of the Ulster County Legislature, an infuriated Van Blarcum called Auerbach’s report on financial arrangements within the task force “12 pages of BS” and questioned the comptroller’s authority to conduct the study.
At issue is how to divide money seized by the task force through the U.S. Justice Department’s asset forfeiture program. The program allows local police agencies to submit assets, anything from cash to cars to real estate, seized in police actions for forfeiture proceedings in federal court. If the court finds that the assets in question are proceeds of a crime, the agency which made the seizure can claim up to 80 percent of the asset’s value. When multiple agencies participate in a seizure, federal officials weigh each agency’s involvement in the investigation and divide the take accordingly. Last year, the Kingston Police Department, citing dwindling manpower, withdrew officers from URGENT.
With the KPD out, Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo asked for an accounting for potential seizure money due the department based on their work with URGENT. As part of the unwinding process Gallo asked County Attorney Bea Havranek to examine the URGENT accounts and underlying legal issues. Havranek passed the job to Auerbach, who last week released a draft report of his findings.
Lax oversight, says Auerbach
The resulting study, which examined the task force’s seizure program from its inception in 2007 until this summer, raised more questions than it answered. Pointing to several “memoranda of agreements” produced to govern the program over the years, Auerbach contended that in most cases, the contracts appeared to have been largely ignored. In some cases, they were never even authorized by civilian authorities overseeing the participating police agencies.
According to Auerbach’s report, during URGENT’s lifespan there have been four separate memoranda, or “MOU.” The agreements, which spell out the terms of agencies’ participation in URGENT, including how to split seized assets, bear a hodge-podge of sign-offs from different agencies at different times. None of the agreements, Auerbach claimed, appear to be signed by all of the participating agencies. The Kingston Police Department, for example, signed off on a memo promulgated in 2008 and another covering 2011 and 2012, but not on yet another which was in force in 2009 and 2010. Additionally, the report found no records of membership or meetings by a three-member governing board created by the MOU. According to Auerbach, the lack of clarity — and in some cases, lack of authorization by town boards and other civilian authorities — call into question whether any of the memos can be regarded as binding.
Regarding the seizure money, Auerbach noted in his report that the MOU all call for participating agencies to receive 45 percent of seizures over $5,000, with the remainder presumably remaining with the task force. However, Auerbach said, the provision appears to have gone unenforced, with the full knowledge of cops working the program.
“It appears [the division of forfeiture money] was never done, and perhaps just as importantly, never requested or demanded by any participating agency,” the report reads. “Instead, the will of the participating agencies appears to have uniformly been to put forfeiture money back into the program to continue and improve its work.”