The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security inappropriately used $112,614 in asset forfeiture funds on catering, a luncheon, banquet tickets and retail food, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The report released this week looked at expenses from 2014 through 2016.
Through the DOJ’s Equitable Sharing Program, state and local law enforcement agencies directly involved in cases resulting in federal forfeiture can claim a portion of federally forfeited cash, property and proceeds. But guidelines restrict using the assets for law enforcement purposes only.
The purchase of food and beverages is included on a list of unallowable expenses.
“The use of equitable sharing funds to purchase catering, a luncheon, banquet tickets and retail food is contrary to the Equitable Sharing Guide and its goal of promoting and maintaining the integrity of the Equitable Sharing Program to merit public confidence and support,” the report notes.
When the DOJ presented its findings to the state Department of Safety, its controller said he did not know food-related purchases were not allowed, according to the report. Other officials said they considered catering expenses to be in support of law enforcement activities.
The DOJ report also noted that the state Department of Safety “had no procedures for tracking and reconciling equitable sharing requests to receipts and had no separately designated account for expenditures.”
“Additionally, the Department submitted Equitable Sharing Agreement and Certification Reports for FY 2014 to FY 2016 that were not signed by Department of Safety or State of Tennessee officials, and the FY 2014 report was submitted 19 days late,” the report said.
The DOJ report ended with a list of recommendations for improvement. The state Department of Safety responded in a letter about actions taken. The Aug. 28 letter said:
The Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security concurs with the recommendation and will reimburse the Department of Justice for the unallowable expenditures. It is important to note that the expenditures were for food and ticket expenses associated with allowable law enforcement banquets and award ceremonies. However, the Department’s understanding of allowable versus unallowable costs associated with such events was incorrect. The Department has corrected its understanding and will ensure only allowable costs are submitted for reimbursement moving forward.
Reason magazine in a blog post Thursday highlighted the Tennessee case and mentioned others around the country in which law enforcement agencies were found to have used asset forfeiture funds improperly. Last year, the DOJ found that an Illinois police department spent more than $20,000 in equitable sharing funds on accessories for two motorcycles, including decorative chrome and heated handgrips.
Some libertarians and conservatives have pushed for forfeiture reform to prevent incentivizing seizing assets believed to be connected to a crime. Assets can be seized without indictments or much evidence and can be difficult to recover.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions faced widespread criticism in July when he announced the Trump administration would make it easier for local law enforcement to seize cash and property from crime suspects. The practice had been limited under former President Obama. Sessions said it is a tool needed to fight drug cartels.
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