Forfeiture Follies

Few things can be as gratifying to elected officials than the public’s general inability to connect the dots, even when they are displayed before them for all to see and are as ugly as possible.  Imagine the deep sigh of relief when they hear silence instead of the chant of the villagers approaching with torches and pitchforks. 

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice must know that sigh well. From Newsday :

One consequence of the myriad problems at the Nassau County Police Department crime laboratory will be the retesting of at least 3,000 forensic samples, at a minimum cost of $400,000. In view of Nassau’s budget problems, this expense, stemming as it does from mismanagement and a lack of oversight at the lab, should cause an uproar.

It hasn’t, largely because when District Attorney Kathleen Rice announced the costs, she said the money would come from the police department’s forfeiture funds, “rather than sticking taxpayers with the bill.”

Despite having some of the highest taxes in the nation, Nassau County has such a massive structural deficit that it’s under the thumb of a finance authority to compel the executive and legislature to avoid renaming the courthouse after Wal-Mart.  This had nothing to do with the fact that its  crime lab has been shuttered for lying and cheating, while under the watchful eye of Rice and cops perpetually by her side.  Now they have to do it all over again, paying a competent lab for the effort, and this only goes back as far as 2005, while no one knows how far back the lying and cheating goes.

What if the cost of this incompetence meant that schools were closed, teachers fired?  What if it meant taxes went up for the nice family in the split level on the corner?  What if it meant your taxes went up.  You would be angry.  You would be very upset that massive incompetence, the sort you could put your finger on, was taking money out of your pocket.  You would make the angry sound, grrrr, and go out to the garage to look for the pitchfork.

Fortunately, you won’t have to.  As Rice announced, it won’t cost taxpayers a dime.  The cost will be paid from the “police department’s forfeiture funds.”  They way she said it, she sounds like the taxpayer’s hero.  Heroine?  That just sounds wrong, though.

This carefully crafted announcement, however, hides a few ugly things behind the great news.  First, that the police have a slush fund that nobody knows about, all while they are sucking at the public teet for money to keep cops on the street to protect the womenfolk from rapists.  Second, that this slush fund came from asset forfeitures, that shady process of civil seizures with negligible basis and even lower burden of proof, while owners are tied up with defending against criminal prosecution.

But the third bit of ugliness is that one that raised the cackles of the Newsday editorial writer, that the amount of the slush fund is itself a big secret:

They derive from taxpayer-funded law enforcement, arise from crimes committed against society and are to be used for the public good. So it’s worth asking: How much money does Nassau have in its two forfeiture funds, one federal and one state, and how much will the retesting deplete them? Are there programs that would have happened that now won’t, because this money is being used in this way?

The Nassau cops’ answer to these questions: It’s none of your business.

The “why” is about as basic a law enforcement ploy as one would expect.

Nassau police brass are refusing to release even the most general information about the funds, arguing that publicizing exactly what forfeiture money is spent on could endanger officers and operations.

Certainly we can’t let the criminals know what the cops are doing.  Just as with the secrets of the crime lab.  Except this argument is utterly nonsensical, since the amount of the slush fund tells nothing to criminals.  It also tells nothing to the elected officials who are supposed to be watching the public fisc while the cops amass their own private financing sources. 

Or the citizens, who pay the taxes necessitated by public services.  And official incompetence.  And fiscal mismanagement.  And police corruption.  All of which gets swept under the carpet when the slush fund is used to pay off the bill from the crime lab and denied the taxpayers for general use.

It should come as no surprise that this piling on of uglies, of incompetence, of mismanagement and corruption, is both happening and coming to light.  When no one is minding the cops, all sorts of bad things tend to happen.  When the public blindly accepts ridiculous rhetoric to justify the uglies, it emboldens officials to do even worse.  And Nassau County has become the posterboy for abject neglect.

The question now is whether the public will applaud Kathleen Rice’s disingenuous announcement that it won’t cost the taxpayers a dime to fix the crime lab fiasco because of the existence of a still-secret police slush fund.  The final ugly dot to be connected is how all of this happened and continues to happen while she sits at the big District Attorney’s desk and yet seems to have neither a clue, nor a responsibility, for any of it. 

After all, why give a second thought to Rice when she’s busy saving the taxpayer’s money? 

2 thoughts on “Forfeiture Follies

  1. Mark Draughn

    Sigh. Okay everybody, repeat after me: Money is fungible. That’s why they call it money. If paying off the crime lab isn’t going to increase the cost to the taxpayers, that can only be because the cops were planning to waste the taxpayers’ money some other way.

  2. DannnyJ119

    I’m sure she meant to say that “We’ll only be sticking SOME taxpayers with the bill.” Watch your back in Nassau County.

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