Editorial: Forfeiture funds shouldn't be secret

New York?s top court ruled that Suffolk County?s New York’s top court ruled that Suffolk County’s term-limits law doesn’t apply to the office of district attorney – clearing the way for District Attorney Thomas Spota to run for a fourth term. Photo Credit: James Carbone

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There's a problem with the way forfeiture accounts are handled by the police departments and district attorneys' offices in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The problem, though, mostly isn't how the money is spent or any lack of oversight. The problem is transparency.

Each of the agencies holds accounts with money collected when assets in a suspected criminal enterprise are forfeited. None of the four does a very good job telling the public about those accounts.

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Under state and federal laws, forfeiture money can be spent only for law enforcement and only on additions to what an organization already does. The money can't go into the general fund or supplant regular law enforcement funding. Gun buybacks, special bulletproof vests, vehicles, training conferences and youth programs are common uses.

The accounts usually hold a few million dollars, but because of two huge forfeitures recently -- an HSBC fraud settlement and a counterfeit-cellphone sting -- the Nassau police have almost $28 million. The department plans to use $25 million to build a long-planned but never-funded police academy.

But the full coffers have led Nassau County legislators to tout wish-list items, such as paying the salaries of plainclothes cops who are being reassigned, which the law does not allow. Elsewhere, law enforcement agencies have used forfeiture accounts as slush funds. There have been no such accusations on Long Island, and expenditures of forfeiture money follows the same approval process used for other county purchases, but the secrecy surrounding the money invites cynicism.

The best way to make sure there are no problems and to quiet the criticism of how the accounts are handled is by issuing regular reports on where the money comes from and how all of it is spent.

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