The push for strict limits on how officials can use funds seized from suspected criminals came to a quiet end earlier this year amid opposition from law enforcement. But fresh concerns over potential abuse of those funds has given new life to legislation once left for dead beneath the Gold Dome.
Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston both threw their support behind legislation that could force more transparency after reports detailed the questionable use of the funds by local district attorneys. And head honchos of the state Republican Party are now debating whether to add their influential voices behind an overhaul.
The newfound support has unnerved some law enforcement officials. Howard Sills, who heads the Georgia Sheriffs Association, wants rules that already require law enforcement to submit their spending reports to be enforced. The Putnam County sheriff sees the revived campaign as “propaganda spewed forth by the people who want to enrich criminals.”
Powerful new backers of the changes are trying to portray them as inevitable. Ralston said he plans to build support among “independent-minded sheriffs” and other law enforcement willing to buck their leadership and negotiate a deal.
“We know that there’s going to be something done,” he said. “It’s going to take some muscle - I’m sure it will. But the point is that ultimately the voters are more powerful than any of us.”
The momentum for new restrictions came after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard used tens of thousands of dollars of forfeiture funds on things that had little to do with putting criminals behind bars.
The money, seized from suspects who violated state law, helped pay for office bashes, a wrought-iron security door for Howard’s house and tickets to charity balls and sporting events.
The day after the AJC’s story was published, Deal directed his staff to find ways to tighten forfeiture spending controls. The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council is now considering whether to back a major overhaul of state law that would take final say over spending out of the hands of district attorneys.
Howard, who said that the spending was part of an innovative effort to lower crime, asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation last week to conduct an independent review of his spending. Douglas County District Attorney David McDade also asked the GBI to probe his spending after an Atlanta television station reported he used forfeiture money for perks and side jobs to favored employees.
The turnaround is surprising given the stiff resistance to changes just a few months ago.
State law is supposed to make the forfeiture process open to public scrutiny. Police and sheriffs departments must compile yearly reports on their forfeitures, but only a fraction of Georgia’s 159 counties have posted them and there’s no penalty for those who fail to follow. There’s no requirements at all for district attorneys to post their records.
State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, proposed changes that would have punished departments that misused forfeited funds or failed to report how they spent the money. House Bill 1 would also have required law enforcement agencies to provide more proof before seizing the property, and required district attorneys to spend funds for law enforcement purposes only.
But he was swiftly accused by outraged law enforcement officials of coddling criminals. Sheriffs organized protests to condemn the legislation and powerful prosecutors opposed it. It never reached a vote in the House.
“That law would have done nothing but make it more difficult to seize the assets of criminals,” said Sills, the sheriff’s association head. “It would benefit nobody but criminals and the attorneys that represent them. These dope dealers aren’t doing any time. Seizing their assets is the only thing that hurts them.”
His concerns resonate among some conservatives. The Georgia Republican Party’s state committee is weighing whether to urge lawmakers to tighten reporting requirements and demand “some means of outside enforcement.” At a Saturday meeting, members struggled to reach a consensus over the state’s role in reining in the expenses.
“We’ve all heard that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Virginia Galloway, a tea party leader who championed the push. “We need transparency.”
But how to increase scrutiny of the rules without expanding government confounded the group. Members decided the debate needed further study after Rose Wing, a former prosecutor, argued that the forfeiture rules are among the state’s most valuable crime-fighting tools.
She asked: “What if it was a gang banger coming into your neighborhood who came to shoot at your neighborhood or your house?”