published Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Tennessee lawmakers want to rein in drug task forces

The tenure of 10th District Drug Task Force director Mike Hall included allegations of improper spending and questions about drug use. Here, Hall makes an arrest.
The tenure of 10th District Drug Task Force director Mike Hall included allegations of improper spending and questions about drug use. Here, Hall makes an arrest.

NASHVILLE -- Skeptical about cops whose salaries depend on seizing money from motorists, some Tennessee lawmakers think it's time for more transparency and accountability in the state's judicial drug task forces.

After a hearing Tuesday in Nashville, members of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee found their statutory authority, their governance and their oversight all lacking, and several said they expect to file legislation in January to impose tighter controls on the task forces.

The subcommittee, headed by Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, was following up on allegations raised in the Times Free Press and elsewhere about problems in some of Tennessee's 24 drug task forces that amount to "policing for profit."

The task forces generally must earn their own way, with little to no state or local support. Most depend on interdiction -- seizing cash and property from drug dealers or money couriers -- and drug fines and forfeitures to pay the bills. But allegations raised by the newspaper, the state comptroller's office and Nashville television station NewsChannel 5 documented massive problems with a system that gives police a financial stake in crime.

They detailed agents seizing money as drug proceeds but never charging owners with a crime; of misspending of taxpayer money; and of misappropriating for personal use or profit cars, jewels and other big-ticket items seized from motorists by drug agents.

"The perception is that money's just being confiscated away from those people and they have to go to court to get what's rightfully theirs back," said panel member Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.

The committee heard from a district attorney, a drug task force director and officials with the state comptroller's office about the history and governance of the task forces since their creation in 1988.

Among the weaknesses they identified: the boards of directors that are supposed to oversee drug task forces have no statutory description or role. In some cases, the boards never met or, if they met, never kept any minutes, said Joe Kimery with the state comptroller's office. And though tradition has it that the district attorney general is chairman of the task force board, the statute doesn't actually say that.

Year after year, auditors found lack of oversight, improper use of seized property, lack of documentation on payments to confidential informants and other ways that money or property could be misspent or diverted.

A 2010 audit led to the indictment of a West Tennessee drug task force director, Steven Lee, and his assistant on theft charges. The audit implicated the 24th district attorney general, Hansel McAdams, whom auditors said drove vehicles seized by the task force, including a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a Cadillac.

Closer to home, the audit of the 10th Judicial District task force for Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties found that then-Director Mike Hall spent tens of thousands of dollars that could not be identified as legitimate task force spending. That included flowers, scented candles and local hotel rooms for himself and a woman agent.

Earlier this year, some lawmakers talked about the idea of handing the drug task forces over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation or the state Department of Safety.

The auditors said Wednesday they have been working with task force boards on training and accountability methods. And Russell Johnson, district attorney general in the 9th District that includes Meigs and Roane counties, said the attorney generals' administrative agency has done training for task force directors as well.

Now, Bell said after the hearing, "I think the current structure is probably workable," but he said he expects some legislation will be offered to build in more structure to the task forces.

"I think it builds a higher level of accountability if it's done by statute," he said.

The Tennessee General Assembly's 2014 session convenes Jan. 14.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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