Jan. 27, 2004 – The Police Department received a long-awaited check on Tuesday from the U.S. Department of Justice's Asset Forfeiture Program in the amount of $247,423.72. The money represents funds from the seizure of assets and property in criminal cases from 1998 to 2002.
This is the first time in more than six years that the department has received money from the program. The funds, while earmarked for the Police Department because of its involvement with federal agencies in several criminal cases, had been withheld because of the department's failure to comply with federal guidelines.
Established in 1984 under the federal Crime Control Act, the Asset Forfeiture Program provides for the seizure of money and property used in criminal activities such as drug distribution, money laundering and fraud. A local law-enforcement agency participating with federal authorities in the investigation of such cases is entitled to an "equitable share of the forfeited property or the proceeds from the sale of the property if it agrees to use the property or its proceeds for law-enforcement purposes."
According to federal officials, the U.S. Department of Justice "withheld asset forfeiture-sharing money from VIPD because it [had] been unable to properly account for all money received from the Asset Forfeiture program between 1991 and 1997."
U.S. Attorney David Nissman said at a press conference on Tuesday that "while there was a problem with accountability for these funds, no wrongdoing was implicitly found."
Police Commissioner Elton Lewis said that a major factor in the noncompliance had been the department's failure to establish an account solely for the forfeiture funds. "We now have an established account," he said. "This is the reason that we're sitting here this morning."
Prior to the account being established, money from the program was going into the General Fund, and there was no clear way of showing that it was being utilized for its intended purposes. The key provision, Nissman said, was that the money "must be used for law-enforcement purposes."
In October, U.S. Department of Justice officials decided that they would release most of the previously withheld funds to the Police Department because of "demonstrated law-enforcement needs in the Virgin Islands." However, $30,000 was deducted from the total as a penalty for past noncompliance.
The released money stems from 31 seizures between 1998 and 2002 amounting to about $1 million. The "equitable shares" given to the VIPD range from 10 percent to 80 percent of each seizure, based on the agency's level of participation.
Nissman; U.S. Marshal Conrad Hoover; Paul Gimenez, former counsel to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull; and FBI agent Marilyn Lucht were instrumental in getting the money released to the Virgin Islands.
"I'm going to spend the money wisely and make sure we remain in compliance all the way," Lewis said. "We must be very cognizant in terms of following the guidelines in spending that money."
At Tuesday's press conference, held in the Ron de Lugo Federal Building on St. Thomas, Nissman and the other federal officials presented an oversized "check" to the local police authorities. It was a move clearly aimed at taking advantage of a rare photo opportunity in the building, which houses the District Court. The news media are not allowed to bring cameras or recording equipment into the courthouse, but an exception was made for the press conference.
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