Just because a given action or behavior is legal does not make it right or proper.
There’s a strong argument to be made for reaching that conclusion in the recent disclosures of questionable expenditures by local district attorneys. The purchases under scrutiny were made using monies seized through civil forfeitures.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last Sunday that Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s office has spent tens of thousands of dollars on such things as sporting event tickets, office parties, black-tie galas and even a personalized sports jersey for an out-of-state team. These perks and doo-dads were paid for using a little-known source of money – state civil forfeitures. Such accounts are filled with money seized from people whom law enforcement officials believe are connected to drug dealing or other crimes.
» ANOTHER VIEW: Fulton DA Paul Howard responds
Howard’s not alone in forfeiture practices that have raised questions. Douglas County District Attorney David McDade has asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into his office’s use of drug forfeiture money to pay for cars for his staff. A local television station, which reported that McDade’s office manager had frequently used her car for non-county business.
The Douglas County matter drew the attention of the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, which has set a special meeting to discuss the initial report by Fox 5 TV. Council Chair Fred Bright, Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit district attorney, said in the AJC that “We do recognize there is a need for increased transparency and accountability of these funds.”
The prosecutors’ group says it will also discuss Howard’s spending at a meeting Monday. Such after-the-fact examination has merit, but Georgia needs to be proactive and enact tighter, better controls on how seizure windfalls can be spent.
For their part, McDade and Howard are confident they’ve done nothing wrong. Indeed, no one has alleged that their usage of forfeiture funds is illegal. And that’s not really the point at issue here.
Rather, the questions at hand are broader ones of judgment, discretion and propriety. Experienced lawyers repeatedly elected by voters should understand better than anyone else the distinction between winning legal battles in a courtroom and winning in the court of public opinion. Doing both is a career essential for district attorneys. Or it should be, if the interests of both public safety and public trust are to be adequately served and safeguarded.
In this age of widespread and deep public skepticism or outright disbelief that elected officials will act as good stewards of money entrusted to their offices, it’s regrettable that there’s even a need for a prosecutors’ group to have to discuss the behavior of two of their own.
Tightening up loose state rules around use of civil forfeiture monies should reduce the need for such future examinations of iffy spending behavior.
Gov. Nathan Deal has taken a first step toward that hopefully happening. Deal last week directed the Criminal Justice Reform Council to “study needed reforms on the use of state forfeiture funds,” said spokesman Brian Robinson. The reform council is expected to examine the matter and report back to the governor before the Georgia General Assembly reconvenes next January.
Deal is then expected to work with legislators in drafting a bill to address any problems found. Robinson said that, “While it’s too early to speculate on possible changes, the governor said it’s obvious that the system requires more transparency.”
That need is easy to see, given that Georgia’s law enforcement agencies must issue annual reports on forfeitures while district attorneys aren’t required to do the same. That discrepancy needs to be eliminated.
We’d argue too that, given what we’ve seen, more-stringent commonsense guidelines are needed to help ensure that forfeiture money is spent on legitimate crime-fighting tasks. Paying nearly $10,000 for staff and family meals at a St. Simons Island restaurant during an office retreat — as the Fulton County DA’s office did — doesn’t fall under enforcing the law, in our view. Enforcing negative views of government is more like it.
Georgia is a growing, increasingly influential state. The old ways of powerful elected leaders imposing their will on counties with little interference or oversight should be behind us by now. Patching holes in civil forfeiture rules will help us get there.
Georgia should set a national example in making that happen before the end of the 2014 legislative session.