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.

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Comments on “Senator Wants To Know Why The US Marshals Asset Forfeiture Division Is Blowing Money On $10,000 Tables”

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22 Comments
Marshal Meathead says:

We did and don't you say we didn't!

“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?”

Hell yaeh we got it, we spent $47,853.28, delivered and installed! We know a guy, so we got it for a song!

We considered cheaper ones but they didn’t have cup holders or those holes you can pull your cords through for the laptops to connect to the wireless router and LCD projectors, so we can do powerpoints and stuff about all the other cool stuff we are gonna be getting with the rest of Bernies leftovers… And those four banquet tables we were useing, the velco-on skirts kept getting caught in the wheels on all of our Aeron chairs when we raced ’em in the conference room, so it does not make sense to rent them from my brother-in-law’s party supply store any more for a grand a day each.

Hope you like your answers Chuck! have a good time with that fund-raising! We’ll keep doing it our way.

JoeT says:

Conference table

I work for a Fortune 50 company, and we happen to be doing a major remodel. We’re tight-fisted with money (the remodel included saving the 50-year old ceiling tiles, and putting them back up, stains and all, after the re-cable), but you can’t fake a new conference table to fit in the new-layout room. I overheard the real-estate people talking about the cost.

$10K (or even $50 K) is reasonable. For the biggest conference room they’re spending more than that (delivered, cabled, and installed). It’s meant to impress (meetings with customers and the like) and is made of solid-ish wood… but it should also last 50 years. IIRC the table it is replacing was about that old, and is likely to be pressed into service in a non-customer-facing room for another 20 years.

But yeah, I really can’t fault them for a 10k table; if it 1) is bigger than standard, 2) had to be wired, 3) had to look nice for impressions sake, and 4) is intended to last a long time.

The expense seems reasonable. Of course, how they got the money is simply legalized robbery.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Conference table

A for-profit company might consider the cost reasonable, given an impressed potential customer is more likely to become a paying future customer, but a government agency like this should have no reason to need to ‘impress’ anyone, and as such should be able to get by with what’s needed to do their jobs, and no more.

JoeT says:

Re: Re: Conference table

I’d still cut them a little slack. Even Office Depot will let you spend $3K on a mostly-plastic table (looks nice now, but wanna bet about 5 years from now?). Sure, the US government doesn’t need to impress a customer, but they still have reasons to put on a good face. E.g. cowing their vendors, or intimidating a target of regulation.

I dislike excess spending by the government quite intensely… but I also know that quality office furniture can be ungodly expensive. It isn’t directly obvious how much was spent, but for a big conference room even a budget table is going to hit $10K.

Mostly, I think that the Senator from Iowa shouldn’t focus on $10K conference tables… but rather that said tables were funded by even two red cents of essentially stolen funds. Overspending is so common as to be (sadly) mostly acceptable.

But we should resist tooth and nail the concept that they can simply steal money from the people, without whingingly thorough due process.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Conference table


I dislike excess spending by the government quite intensely… but I also know that quality office furniture can be ungodly expensive.

If so, then they should have no trouble providing a few competitive quotes that they obtained at the time and explaining why they went with the one they bought.

Mostly, I think that the Senator from Iowa shouldn’t focus on $10K conference tables… but rather that said tables were funded by even two red cents of essentially stolen funds.

Quite true, that is the much more important problem.

DogBreath says:

Re: Conference table

1) is bigger than standard, 2) had to be wired, 3) had to look nice for impressions sake, and 4) is intended to last a long time.

The Answer to their problems:

Upcycle, Repurposed, Furniture, Custom Built Table Out Of A Old Farm Door – Redneck Restoration

(1) Farmhouse doors are bigger than standard

(2) Has easy access hole for wiring (where doorknob use to be)

(3) Who doesn’t love the rustic look of an old farmhouse door?

(4) Door lasted in a farmhouse… I think it will last in the US Marshals Asset Forfeiture Division

P.S. If they need a bigger table, they can just add more farmhouse doors.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Conference table

That Fortune 50 corporations are willing to waste their money of fancy conference tables is one thing, but the government should not be doing it. Spending big bucks just to look impressive is idiocy.

But then, I’m a believer in the “chandelier rule”. The more money a company spends to impress people, the less trustworthy that company is. There are exceptions, but in my experience it tends to hold true.

CanadianByChoice (profile) says:

Profit from crime?

While I don’t have a problem with the idea of taking the profit out of crime – isn’t this exactly what they (LEOs) are doing? profiting from theft?
I would stipulate that for there to be an “asset forfiture”, two things should happen:
(1) there should be a conviction for a crime that directly resulted in the aquisition of the asset, and (2) the original “owner” (victom) can be identified so that the entire “asset” can be returned to the “rightful” owner (no withholding or “fees” by the LEO). If either of these conditions fail, then they should not be able to seize the asset. This type of rule is the only way to prevent the very corruption we are seeing so much of now.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Profit from crime?

(2) the original “owner” (victom) can be identified so that the entire “asset” can be returned to the “rightful” owner (no withholding or “fees” by the LEO).

That would only apply to stolen property. It seems reasonable to me to have illegally obtained money and goods forfeited, and maybe items used to commit a crime. There must be due process though, and I don’t think what we have now qualifies. It would also be nice if this were applied to bankers as well as drug dealers.

Anonymous Coward says:

With any government agency spending other people’s money, it’s not just an issue of what they waste it on but who they waste it on. Nepotism is one of the basic tenets of government, so any time you follow the money, you’re likely to trace it back to the pockets of the friends, relatives, and business associates — and increasingly these days, the future employer– of the very agency director that signed off on the purchase.

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