Audit: Sheriff’s Office gets clean report

A federal audit released Wednesday found the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office followed all rules in the reporting, accounting and spending of asset forfeiture funds received by the agency as a result of its participation in drug and cigarette smuggling prosecutions.

The audit, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General from February through May, covered fiscal years 2013 and 2014. It provided the closest scrutiny the Sheriff’s Office has received from an outside agency of how asset forfeiture money is being managed.

“We found that the (Sheriff’s Office) generally complied with the guidelines for reporting, accounting for and using equitable sharing funds,” the report concluded, using the term equitable sharing funds instead of asset forfeiture funds.

The use and sometimes misuse of asset forfeiture funds by local law enforcement agencies have drawn media attention and political controversy in some communities.

The money, sometimes amounting to millions of dollars within one year for a single agency, is generated through law enforcement investigations that result in the seizure of property or cash deemed to have been part of a criminal enterprise such as drug dealing or cigarette smuggling.

The property or cash is handed off to the federal government, which converts the property into cash when disposing of it through auctions or other means. The money  is then distributed back to local law enforcement for uses that are spelled out in Justice Department guidelines.

The audit did not review how the Sheriff’s Office has been managing millions of dollars that have flowed in and out of undercover investigations into drug dealing and cigarette smuggling since 2010. The money received by the Sheriff’s Office in asset forfeiture funds is a direct product of the agency’s participation in those investigations.

The Justice Department prohibits asset forfeiture funds from being used to replace money cut from a police agency budget by a legislative body such as a board of supervisors or city council. The audit of the Sheriff’s Office cited initial concerns about a 5.2 percent decrease in the agency’s budget from fiscal year 2014 to 2015. But the audit found that the $300,000 cut stemmed from the transfer of Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office prisoners to the newly opened Rappahannock-Warren-Shenandoah Regional Jail, which is operated by a separate jail authority.

The report states “although there was a decrease in the budget, this decrease was limited to a single category of funds. Therefore, we do not attribute the decrease to budget supplanting.”

The report found that asset forfeiture money that paid for vehicles, vehicle equipment, body cameras, and the salaries of school resource officers all fell within the category of permissible uses.

The audit states that the Sheriff’s Office received $924,218 and spent $697,629 in asset forfeiture funds during the last two fiscal years. The agency’s total take for the last 10 years exceeds $4 million.

Sheriff Timothy C. Carter said he had no knowledge of the audit before it began in February. Carter said no reason was given for the audit, but he speculated that the millions of dollars the Sheriff’s Office has received in asset forfeiture money in recent years may have caught the eye of someone in the Justice Department.

“We’re a small agency that has a large influx of those funds,” Carter said. “That probably moved our agency to the front of the list as far as being reviewed and audited. They compared us with other agencies in the commonwealth, and I do think that pushes you up to a higher priority to be reviewed.”

Carter said the treasurer’s office and Board of Supervisors, both of which are also involved in handling requests for asset forfeiture funds and their expenditure, deserve credit with the Sheriff’s Office for the favorable audit report.

“There’s been a lot of reporting on asset forfeiture nationally and locally,” Carter said. “We’re pleased with the outcome, and we worked hard to get an outcome like this.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or