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Landscaping Work, A Boat – Authorities Question Sheriff's Spending of Thousands In Forfeited Assets

Asset forfeiture has always been controversial, yet the uses to which these funds are put are not often closely scrutinized. Recently however, authorities have been looking into questionable expenditures, using seized funds, by Camden County, GA Sheriff Bill Smith.

The Florida Times-Union reported on July 5, 2008 ("Sheriff's drug fund spending revealed") that "Camden County Sheriff Bill Smith stopped paying jail inmates from seized drug assets when state investigators began looking into the controversial practice last July, according to copies of checks he released to avoid a lawsuit last month. But Smith continued to use the federal forfeiture money for other questionable expenditures such as college tuition for favored deputies, a Kingsland boxing club's lease, and a retainer for a private lawyer, the checks show. And he used the federally regulated fund to pay routine expenses after county commissioners cut his operating budget last year. Federal guidelines say the asset money, returned to counties based on drug arrests, is to be used only for law enforcement purposes such as equipment, jails or training. They expressly say the funds are not to be used for the department's general operational costs or in any way that gives the appearance of extravagance, waste or impropriety."

According to the Times-Union, "Questions over his use of the funds led County Commission Chairman Preston Rhodes to refuse to sign an authorization form in September to receive money from the federal government this year. 'While they're noble, they're not legal,' Jim Stein, one of the attorneys who sued Smith to open the 2007-08 records, said of many of the sheriff's expenditures. The records show Smith spent about $615,000 from the fund from July 2007 through May."

The Times-Union reported that "Commissioners repeatedly criticized his use of federal drug money to pay jail inmates to work on private property, including the sheriff's, and not just in Camden County but also at his ex-wife's house in South Carolina. According to previous years' audits, inmates were paid $50 a week from the fund, a practice Smith always defended as beneficial not only to the community, but to the inmates. After the Times-Union spotted Camden jail inmates working on private land on Cumberland Island in June 2007, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation began probing Smith's use of inmate labor. That investigation is in the hands of a federal grand jury in Savannah. The checks released last month show Smith stopped using seized assets to pay the inmates around the time the GBI investigation began last July. Brown said the sheriff has completely stopped the practice because of all the questions raised about it. Smith's critics also questioned his use of the assets to send some of his own employees to college. A review of the released checks shows he spent about $33,800, roughly 5 percent of the federal drug money, for tuition and related costs at colleges around the Southeast. [Sheriff Smith's campaign consultant Terry] Brown said the deputies are being trained in criminal justice or related fields and noted that Tommy Gregory, Smith's opponent in the impending election, benefited from the program when he was a sheriff's deputy. But Commissioner Steve Berry, Smith's most outspoken critic on the board, said the tuition program is unfair to employees who aren't picked and a misuse of the shared asset money. He questioned the expenditure at a time when the sheriff has complained he needs new patrol cars and a bigger jail. 'It's only available to the chosen, and there's no guarantee they're going to stay working for us,' Berry said. Smith also spent about $14,400 on employee training and associated travel, about 2 percent of the total. Brown said a $900 check in August to Bally's Atlantic City Hotel and Casino was to send four deputies to drug interdiction training.&quto;

The Times-Union also noted that "Fuel expenditures made up most of the money spent on operational expenses. 'They are doing what they can to meet all their expenses by using the assets,' Brown said. Smith started using the fund for fuel costs in November, the checks show. But Berry said less than a third of the sheriff's monthly fuel costs are for patrol vehicles. The majority pays for take-home vehicles for 23 nonpatrol Sheriff's Office employees, he said. "The waste is not in the patrol deputy division," Berry said. "Basically they need $4,000 a month to protect the public. The rest is just waste, fraud and abuse." Berry also criticized the sheriff's purchase of a 28-foot boat with $79,000 in drug funds. At the time, Smith said the boat was for "terrorist interdiction and drug enforcement," but Berry said it has done little more than be Smith's personal ferry to Cumberland Island. Court records show no felony drug arrests on Camden waterways since the boat was purchased Aug. 1. But Brown said it has been used to patrol the waterways, assist state and federal agencies, and most recently, ferry firefighters to battle a wildfire on Cumberland."

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