Senator Wants To Know Why The US Marshals Asset Forfeiture Division Is Blowing Money On $10,000 Tables
from the converting-expensive-things-into-money-to-spend-on-expensive-things dept
Asset forfeiture — both at state and national levels — is receiving some intense scrutiny, thanks to unflattering coverage in major news outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post. Attorney General Eric Holder made some minor cuts to the DOJ’s participation in states’ forfeiture programs. Meanwhile, at the state level, legislators have introduced bills targeting these programs’ perverted incentives — namely, that the agency performing the asset seizure usually benefits directly from the “forfeited” wealth.
It hasn’t always been successful. Wyoming legislators were shot down by the governor — a former prosecutor — who explained that asset forfeiture is “good” and “right” — something it rarely is in practice. Washington DC’s city council managed to push its reform bill through, placing more constraints on seizures and raising the evidentiary standard needed to declare other people’s assets “guilty.”
Back at the national level, Sen. Chuck Grassley is raising some pointed questions about the US Marshals’ use of asset forfeiture funds. He sent two letters to the agency recently, the first of which questioned its hiring practices.
Grassley said a whistleblower claimed that Kimberly Beal, then the deputy assistant director of the AFD, had qualification requirements waived to hire a person for a high-paying contract who was recommended by Stacia Hylton, the director of the Marshals Service. According to the whistleblower, Beal did so while under consideration for her current position of assistant director, raising suspicions that the hiring was a quid pro quo arrangement.
“This quid pro quo exchange of favors, if true, would raise serious doubts about the operational practices of the USMS AFD under Ms. Beal as well as, frankly, Ms. Hylton’s leadership of the USMS,” Grassley’s office said in the letter.
The second letter questions the Marshals Service’s appetite for office luxuries.
1. Regarding AFD offices at Crystal Mall 4, please answer the following questions:
a. Did AFD purchase a conference table that exceeded $10,000 in cost? If so, what was the cost and why was a less expensive table not considered?
b. Did AFD replace window treatments already provided for in the office lease with expensive custom window treatments? If so, why and what was the cost?
c. Did AFD install custom wallpaper, artwork, crown moldings, and chair rails in its offices? If so, why and at what cost for each of these installations?
d. Does AFD intend to expend similar amounts to decorate and furnish new office space it anticipates moving into in the near future? What will happen to the furnishings and decorations after AFD moves out?
That’s the most eyegrabbing part of Grassley’s letter but the rest asks similar — if less dramatic — questions about the agency’s spending habits.
The US Marshals Service doesn’t necessarily have a long history of asset forfeiture abuse, but it has previously been called out by the DOJ’s Inspector General for being less than accurate with its bookkeeping.
In at least eight of the 55 cases taken up by the asset team between 2005 and 2010, the purchaser or the price of the asset was not recorded. On top of that, the team failed to perform sufficient market research to properly value the assets it was eyeing; for some of them, it couldn’t even provide the OIG with bank statements and other basic documentation.
More damning was the OIG’s discovery of a huge conflict of interest. Another whistleblower uncovered lead asset forfeiture official Leonard Briskman’s extremely fortuitous moonlighting gig. Briskman, who appraised assets for the US Marshals Service, ran his own private appraisal business on the side.
The inspector general reported that in several instances, Briskman valued and sold the same asset himself without supervision by anyone in the marshal’s office. In addition, he failed to publicly announce the sale of some assets, which limited their availability to the general public. In one case, an assistant U.S. Attorney from the Southern District of New York objected to a decision by Briskman to sell assets that had been seized during the Bernard Madoff case–more than one million shares of a pet prescription firm and a 5 percent stake in another investment portfolio–without announcing the sale.
The US Marshals Service doesn’t need to dirty its hands by performing seizures. All it has to do is sit there and wait for assets from equitable sharing programs to roll in. And roll in they do, thanks to local law enforcement agencies partnering up with the DOJ to avoid state laws put in place to limit the sort of abuse that is all too frequent when cops are given the authority to declare money, vehicles and other property guilty on the spot.
As would befit any government agency spending other people’s money and divesting itself of other people’s property, the US Marshals Service buys $10,000 tables and does little to ensure its auctioned items return something close to market value. Because of its lax accounting and questionable appraisals, money from sales went AWOL and what it did receive from auctions was likely less than it would have obtained with a bit more diligence and competence.
Whether Grassley will receive any answers to his questions remains to be seen, but the recent history of the US Marshals Service doesn’t indicate it’s an agency enthralled with concepts like fiscal responsibility and public accountability. If the agency is blowing seized funds on pricey tables and custom window treatments, it’s going to take more than a couple of angry letters to change its “Spend it like you seized it!” culture.