Supervisors, sheriff clash over asset forfeiture spending

By Joe Beck

WOODSTOCK — Sheriff Timothy C. Carter and several members of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors argued heatedly Tuesday over items Carter is proposing to purchase with asset forfeiture funds in fiscal year 2015.

Chairman David E. Ferguson zeroed in on a tactical robot listed at $124,936 among the list of expenditures. The money for the robot was obtained from a grant awarded by former Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, part of a $33 million sum spread among state police agencies. The grants were the product of $115 million in criminal asset forfeitures that arose from the settlement of a Medicaid fraud case against Abbott Labs in 2012.

Ferguson said he was worried that the robot and other proposed purchases such as computers and video cameras for patrol cars would cost the county too much to maintain as they age.

“Is a tactical robot an ‘I would like to have’ or a ‘we really need one?'” Ferguson asked Carter at one point.

Carter said the device would be used in place of a deputy when conditions in a structure or an open area posed a danger to a human being. He cited one incident late last year in which his department had to wait for the state police to deploy a robot inside a large dwelling where a man had barricaded himself.

“I would rather risk the purchase of a tactical robot than the lives of my staff,” Carter said.

Asset forfeiture funds are the product of cash or property seized and later sold in the aftermath of investigations into criminal enterprises such as drug dealing. The money is typically administered by the federal and state governments and later distributed to local law enforcement agencies according to their level of participation in investigations that lead to the seizure of cash and property.

In Shenandoah County, most or all of the asset forfeiture funds are obtained from successful prosecutions of drug dealers and cigarette smugglers traveling between Virginia and states with high cigarette taxes.

The money is to be spent only for a limited range of law enforcement purposes and not to be diverted elsewhere in local government, according to state and federal rules.

Carter is proposing to spend a total of $706,823 in asset forfeiture funds out of a current total of roughly $3.5 million.

Carter told the board that the items purchased from the Sheriff’s Office asset forfeiture fund cost no taxpayer dollars, but Ferguson and Supervisor Conrad Helsley remained skeptical.

Ferguson repeated his concerns about future maintenance costs.

“It’s not a true statement to say this doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything,” Ferguson told Carter.

Carter said he had no choice but to spend the forfeiture funds on items deemed appropriate by state and federal officials.

“If you want me to give the funds back, I’ll give the funds back,” Carter told Ferguson.

Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz defended Carter’s use of the forfeiture funds.

“I just want to say thank you for looking out for the safety and security of the citizens of this county,” Bailey said.

In an interview after the meeting, Carter said he used asset forfeiture funds to pay for extended warranties to prolong the service life of items purchased with the funds and reduce their maintenance costs.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com