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Drug under the rug
Local law enforcers underreport confiscated property
Clad in bulletproof vests, wielding battering rams and shields, the Athens County Sheriff’s Narcotics Enforcement Team stormed the rusted-out, boarded-up trailer in Nelsonville on a February afternoon.
Behind the door was Buchtel Police Chief Kelsie Lanning, the subject of a monthlong investigation spurred by a tip that he’d been using illicit drugs for more than a year.
A controlled sale of prescription pills sealed the deal. Deputies arrested Lanning and his girlfriend Jessica Willison on drug-related charges. Willison’s charges were dropped, and Lanning’s were bound over to Athens County Common Pleas Court on Feb. 29, but the paperwork had not been sent from Municipal Court as of press time.
Though Lanning held the sole key to the department’s evidence room — a treasure trove of drugs to be destroyed and money to be forever confiscated — Sheriff Pat Kelly said he wasn’t concerned that the room’s contents had been compromised.
But in the past four years, the contents of the Buchtel Police evidence room were never reported to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office — a violation of state law.
“(The law) was designed to address this and to make sure records are kept,” said David Diroll, executive director of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission. “There’s a reason why the law was enacted. We know there’s potential for abuse.”
That law — which Diroll helped shape — requires agencies throughout the state to annually report to the Attorney General’s Office detailed records about seized and forfeited property and information about any money made from the sale of such property.
Butchel Police is not the only agency sporting a track record of delinquent reports. A Post investigation showed that more than half the 33 agencies spanning 10 Southeast Ohio counties failed to report at least once from 2007 to 2010.
Eight of those agencies have never reported any data, including the Nelsonville Police.
Statewide, 69 percent of the about 670 agencies required to report did not, according to the Post investigation.
But the enforcement of this reporting is non-existent, leaving some public officials in charge of huge sums of money and property with no oversight.
“No one said, ‘Hey, we don’t have your reports.’ Surely, all agencies are dealing with some property,” Diroll said.
While some agencies received a failing grade on their Attorney General reporting cards, others’ reporting was sporadic at best, including the Athens County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office failed to report in 2007 and was noncompliant in 2010. Kelly took office in 2009 so the 2010 noncompliance occurred on his watch — a lack of transparency that Athens County Commissioner Larry Payne finds “concerning.”
Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson learned that the sheriff’s office was not reporting the seizure and forfeiture of property after it was listed as “noncompliant” on the Auditor of State’s 2010 report.
The only thing reported in 2010 was mandatory drug fines, which totaled $1,330, according to Attorney General’s Office documents.
“The danger is that we create a situation where fraud, waste and abuse is easy. We’re taking things and people’s livelihood when they are accused of a crime,” Thompson said. “We need proper policies and procedures.”
Kelly told The Post he reported in 2011 after Thompson informed him of the noncompliance.
Though Kelly already reported his 2011 data, state law does not require agencies to report until April 15.
Though he’s quick to tout his Narcotics Enforcement Team for sweeping smack, crack and pills from the crevices of Athens County, no evidence supports his claims. Even when records were submitted, not everything was being reported.
In 2009, Kelly reported the agency seized 21 guns and almost $2,600. But the date they were acquired and how and when they were disposed of was not.
State law requires any law enforcement agency, including prosecuting attorneys, report the amount of property, the date it was acquired, how and when it was disposed, as well as financial documents detailing this disposition and who received the property.
Each agency’s internal control policy should outline what is to be reported to the Attorney General’s Office in accordance with the law. But no outside entity signs off on the policy.
“The prosecuting attorney should talk with officers to make sure the policy (works) and that they report when they should be (reporting) to raise them above the level of suspicion,” Diroll said.
Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said he is available for help on Kelly’s policy if needed.
But about half of all prosecutors statewide required to report from 2007 to 2010 have failed to do so at least once.
“It surprises me some (that prosecutors aren’t reporting),” Diroll said.
Kelly did not report the number of cars seized in 2009, even though sheriff’s office documents showed that six of the 43 vehicles seized from charged drug offenders in the past three years were taken in 2009 cases.
Kelly said those 43 vehicles were “traded to local dealerships for six unmarked vehicles undercover deputies drive,” but he could not provide documentation to show the trade.
The county commissioners do not keep track of where money to purchase new vehicles comes from.
“Normally, as long as we get the titles and they say it’s an undercover (vehicle), we sign off on it,” Payne said.
Only the 10 vehicles seized in 2011 were reported to the Attorney General’s Office, but the date they were traded was not. A document retrieved from the Athens County Commissioners’ Office showed that the sheriff’s office has seven undercover vehicles.
Also reported to the Attorney General for the first time in 2011 was the Law Enforcement Trust Fund, to where some of the money gleaned from drug busts is funneled.
Kelly reported that $322.36 was deposited into the fund in 2011. The fund’s balance was listed as $6,754.61 that year. That fund is one of two outside funds connected to drug-related busts and offenses.
Though separate from those two accounts, Kelly was responsible for a budget of about $1.9 million in 2011.
In a Feb. 24 interview, Kelly told The Post that 2010 brought in major revenue for this fund.
“In 2010, we brought in $20,000 in cash and seized 11 vehicles (from investigations),” Kelly said. “We had five investigations and a deputy is driving a new SUV compliments of those investigations.”
But when asked for the 2010 Law Enforcement Trust Fund documentation, Kelly said he couldn’t provide it because it was never reported to the attorney general.
A stockpile of items seized or abandoned collects dust in the evidence room or parking lot of most law-enforcement headquarters.
Such possessions were once treasured by the charged or convicted, and all are considered property in care of law enforcement — property that must be reported to the Attorney General’s Office.
The state law definition of property includes vehicles, firearms, money and drugs.
“Anything that is illegal for you to have and anything they’re gathering is considered property,” Diroll said.
Yet, not a single agency in Southeast Ohio reported drugs seized each year.
In a public-records request, The Post asked Kelly to provide an inventory log of all drugs seized or forfeited during drug busts from 2009 to 2011, but Kelly refused to provide any such log.
“The court has those (documents),” Kelly said. “You’d have to go through every case.”
But to go through every case, an initial arrest log for all drug-related charges during the time period would have to be provided — which Kelly also refused to do.
Angela Waldron, the sheriff’s office’s records clerk, said she was unable to search the office’s database for drug-related arrests but found that the office had filed more than 400 such charges from 2006 to 2011. She could not verify the accuracy of those numbers.
To obtain a compilation of drug-related offenses, The Post investigated news releases posted on Kelly’s Facebook page during the past year and identified 72 charged individuals.
Seizures and forfeitures were scrawled at the bottom of the police complaints for only nine individuals — six for money seized, two for a car seized, and one for both — but that money seized far exceeded the $322.36 reported by Kelly in 2011.
Other law-enforcement agencies in the county consistently report to the Attorney General’s Office, including the Athens Police Department.
The three beat-up, 1990s vehicles seized by the department in 2011 provided an explanation of when they were seized, when they were disposed and who received the property.
That, along with other money and property seized by the department, was reported to the Attorney General’s Office every year for the past five years.
Though the department didn’t report drugs either, Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle provided an expansive list of drugs seized during the time period.
“When we seize drugs and/or money, we submit them to our evidence room as either evidence or contraband,” Pyle said in an email. “There is a lengthy inventory related to such seizures.”
Problems without Penalties
By April 15, the Attorney General’s Office should be inundated with forfeiture documents submitted by law-enforcement agencies. But if the 88-county pile is a little slim, no penalties exist to uphold the law.
“The attorney general would have to come out and say it needs to be reported. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before,” Diroll said. “Someone could file a writ of mandamus to compel public office to do something.”
When questioned about penalties, the Attorney General’s Office pointed to the statute, stating that everything beyond that was legal opinion not afforded to the media.
Though people might be unaware of the law, Diroll said that is not an excuse for under-reporting.
“Sometimes, with drugs seized and property of value, the temptation is there to do something else with it,” Diroll said. “There’s no suspicion if you keep stuff clean.”