Forfeited drug money returns to county District Attorney’s Office, opens debate

Members of the Centre County Board of Commissioners noticed an unusual transaction during the weekly check run at their meeting Tuesday.

More than $250,000 was transferred directly to the District Attorney’s Office.

Much of the money, which is not subject to a public audit, was obtained from a raid of Dragon Chaser’s Emporium in downtown State College last December, when a total of $916,982 was seized. After the Attorney General’s Office took its cut from Dragon Chasers and other smaller busts, $256,000 was returned to the county for local use.

But state law mandates that money collected from drug seizures such as this is not subject to oversight by the commissioners or the public. Commissioner Chris Exarchos called it bad public policy, saying he takes issue with the statute and not with the District Attorney’s office.

“I’m not suggesting it’s happening, but any time you have a lot of money with no oversight, there is a potential for abuse,” Exarchos said.

Under the Pennsylvania Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act, drug seizure funds collected and spent in Centre County are audited by county Controller Chuck Witmer and sent to the Attorney General’s Office.

But those audits are not made public.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said all the money collected locally is spent on training and equipment to better protect police officers here.

Parks Miller said her hands are tied by state law, which prevents her office, and other district attorneys in the state, from showing publicly how the money is spent — all in the name of officer safety.

“That would put people engaging in the drug trade on specific alert to look for the tools we have given a particular department to fight against that activity,” Parks Miller said. “If we said we bought a certain recording device, if they bought drugs and there was a device that looked like that, they would be on alert. We’re not going to give criminals an advantage.”

But the funds and how they are being spent are reviewed closely, even if not publicly, she said.

“Every single penny spent in that account is scrutinized by the controller of the county and is also scrutinized annually by the Office of the Attorney General,” Parks Miller said.

If the state Attorney General’s Office were to suspect wrongdoing, officials there could launch an investigation.

“There has never been any issue (here) that I know of, and certainly not since I’ve been in office,” Parks Miller said. Parks Miller has held the post after being elected in 2010.

Exarchos said he understands the need why some uses of the money should be kept confidential, but he thinks there is some middle ground. He suggested making portions of the audit public, and if there are specifically delicate items, they can be left off.

He said an analogy could be individual police departments using funding from fines without public scrutiny.

The transfer of this money is nothing new. The General Assembly passed the act in 1988, and the system has run the same ever since.

But this is by far the most money Witmer has ever seen move through the system in Centre County.

“I’ve been here since 1999, and that is the largest amount that we’ve ever received,” he said.

Dating back to 2008, the yearly total ranged from about $12,000 to about $90,000 with a typical year bringing in about $20,000 or $30,000. Though Witmer couldn’t go into details, he said the majority of the money is used for training.

Other uses could be money for a drug sting, stakeout vehicle maintenance or drug law enforcement. The money doesn’t have to be spent in the calendar year and can roll over from year to year, he said.

Parks Miller said the spike was mainly due to a large-scale crackdown on bath salts and synthetic substances, including a raid of Dragon Chaser’s Emporium.

“You never know when you will see an amount like that again,” she said. “We work very hard at making sure that any proceeds from drug dealing are pursued vigorously. That should go into law enforcement protection, not back to the drug dealers.”

Though the law has been on the books for about 25 years, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania still hears complaints.

Executive Director Douglas Hill said CCAP thinks there should be more county oversight of the dollars, but it’s not an issue that members have asked to be high priority.

Hill said he does believe that any contracts should be approved by the individual boards of county commissioners, but he does see the need for confidentiality in some cases.

Centre County Commissioners Chairman Steve Dershem agreed that the money transfer gave him a moment for pause, but added that he has full confidence In the District Attorney’s Office to use the money wisely.

“This kind of caught all of us off guard, knowing the magnitude of these forfeiture checks,” he said. “That’s big money.”

He questioned what would happen if there was a major drug bust and millions flowed through the system. He said it just raises eyebrows when large sums of money are being transferred and the board is not allowed to know exactly where it’s being used.