OVER MONEY DISPUTE
Drug task force in Gwinnett dissolves over money dispute
Several Gwinnett County police agencies are pursuing money they claim they were shortchanged when participating in a countywide drug task force.
The Lilburn Police Department received a check this week for $23,358 from the Gwinnett County Police Department for "unintentional errors" in accounting over the past four years. Lilburn Police Chief John Davidson says that's still at least $5,000 short of what is owed.
In a letter accompanying the check, Gwinnett police Chief Charles Walters said that, based on recommendations from a county audit, "I felt that there were some unintentional errors in the way payouts had been made ... I want to stress that there was no financial mismanagement as alleged by Chief Davidson."
The dispute highlights the unhappy end of a task force launched in 1994 to coordinate county and city police to fight illegal drug activity. City police departments that participated were to share in revenues from confiscated assets used in drug transactions.
Now the task force is essentially dissolved. The accounting probe was launched in March when Davidson noticed his department's share of the proceeds from the Gwinnett County Drug Task Force dropped dramatically. Records show the department's portion fell from $74,545 in 2007 to $25,535 in 2008.
Davidson alleges that payouts to city police agencies were used as an expense the following year to "artificially low( er ) the shared payout to participating agencies."
An audit by the county's Performance Analysis Division concluded that the county police exceeded the $250,000 in expenses it was allowed to deduct under terms of the program. But the auditor said he never obtained a signed copy of the contract, leaving in question whether the document was enforceable.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a signed copy of a 1994 contract that states that proceeds from the forfeitures, minus county expenses, "shall be disbursed on an annual basis to each participating agency." It limits the county police deductible expenses at $250,000.
A spokesman for Gwinnett police referred inquiries to the county administrator's office.
Mike Comer, deputy county administrator, said he disagrees with the cities' allegations.
"There was nothing criminal," he said. "They did make a mistake, and that's all it was. If we've done something wrong, we'll fix it. I promise you we will."
Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway said his office doesn't have the manpower to participate.
The last two city departments -- Lilburn and Snellville -- dropped out this year.
"We got out of it with other cities because the distribution we didn't consider was fair," Snellville Mayor Jerry Oberholtzer said. "When you look at the manpower we were putting in there ... gosh we were losing money on it."
District Attorney Danny Porter, who initiated the program when he took office in 1993, said cities were dropping out well before any accounting irregularities were brought up.
"I'm sorry to see it come to this," he said. "An organization that has existed since 1993, in my opinion because of the actions of some of the city chiefs, has been destroyed in four years."
Porter said some of the cities overlook the fact that the county has always included in its payouts federal asset forfeitures that the county received for its participation at the federal level.
"You can't look at enforcement of any kind as a money-making scheme," he said. "And once you do, then you're just a bounty hunter."
Lawrenceville and Snellville officials said they will pursue a private audit to determine what they might be owed. Lawrenceville police Chief Randy Johnson said he received a check for $8,000 from the county police department Friday.
Lawrenceville Mayor Rex Millsaps said he hopes to obtain detailed records of what property was seized, how much it was worth and what happened to the proceeds from the sale.
"We've become more active in the federal drug task force," Millsaps said. "We've got more members in it. They seem to know how to do a little better accounting than the county does."